Not long after I wrote this post linking to Isaac Chotiner's negative review of Johah Lehrer's Imagine and its "fetishization of brain science," Lehrer was forced to resign from The New Yorker for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes. A lot has been written about the meaning of Lehrer's transgression; but I was bothered less by the distortion of relatively trivial facts than the use to which they had been put: giving shallow, pseudo-scientific explanations of phenomena where philosophical or literary explanations would have been more informative.
Steve Meyers airs a related sentiment about the Bob Dylan scandal overshadowing the numerous scientific errors in Lehrer's work.
The reason for such errors? Science is "more incremental and less conclusive than journalists desire."And (Meyers quoting Karthika Muthukumaraswamy):
This is why reporters are constantly making science out to be what it isn’t, and why scientists are almost always unimpressed with journalists reporting on their work. The point is, this messiness of science, with its endless years of research, cannot be summed up in a few hundred words and neatly tied with a bow harboring a big idea or mindblowing theory.
The problem with Lehrer and others like him is not merely this scientific sensationalism; it's the use of scientific sensationalism in the service of scientism, which involves the notion that the sciences are going to supplant the humanities and answer the kinds of questions we have no reason to believe science can answer. It's a two-step process: first, make the science seem far more impressive, final, and far-reaching in its implications than it actually is (the "mindblowing theory" step); second, broadly misapply it to social phenomena. When you're done, you'll have a book title like: "10−32 Seconds and Counting: How the Big Bang Explains Your Sex Life."
-- Wes Alwan