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
I think there is a larger problem which comes close to our efforts here which is how to (if at all) make complex works accessible to the public in ways that don’t make them work against themselves, use their author-ity to underwrite lies as the recent podcast might have it.
And what is the ethical/response-able relationship in a democracy (or on a worldwideweb) between experts and laypeople?
Is there some helpful difference to be made between giving thinking its due and gossip/punditry?
for some lovely examples of how to discuss science:
Thanks for the link to ideas podcast dmf. I enjoyed the most recent episode as well, you guys have a pretty solid dynamic despite some of you never having met each other in person before! Looking forward to the next one on Candide! hopefully this whole Jonah Lehrer debacle will give us some pause for reflection. It’s just too bad the flag was raised over some Bob Dylan quotes rather than the deeper issues with popular science journalism, that Steve Meyers addresses. David Dobbs also writes on this in a recent post, quoting Ta-Nahesi Caotes:
“[W]e now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions. We have no patience for mystery. We want the deciphering of gods. We want oracles. And we want them right now.”
This recent article rightly gives credit to one of the best science writers in recent history, David Quammen, ( http://www.davidquammen.com/sampler ) who is probably one of the most underrated science writers who I think does justice to ‘giving thinking its due’ without resorting to the ‘gossip/punditry’ that circulates like a massive shitstorm splattering our public dialogue.
The other question you mentioned on the ethical/response-able relationship of experts and laypersons is another one that doesn’t get explicitly addressed as often as it should. Perhaps this is a symptom of the compartmentalization of academia and the proliferation of specializations which may be leading to the feeling of not being able to engage in thoughtful interdialogue without dumbing complex ideas down and ‘valorizing counter-intuitive bullshit’ to convey a point. I think you guys have hit on a formula that engages the layperson very well. But you’re asking a much deeper question about this relationship within a democratic society, have you written about it before in another blog post? I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on that.
Am I mistaken or didn’t Jonah Lehrer work in Kandel’s neuro lab? He’s not just another journalist. Whether that makes things better or worse is up to you.
I tend to agree with the mistrust of scientism. But lately I’ve been getting tired of hearing the complaint about it to, in particular because I’ve had a growing feeling that people in the humanities underrate how much science does at least inform the kinds of questions Wes refers to, even if it cannot in an absolute or purely logical sense establish any link from some inert datum to meaningful human questions and concerns. As an example of the kind of thing I’m thinking about, consider that the discovery that not only was Copernicus right, but that in fact the Copernican revolution grossly underestimated how small and isolated we are in a haphazard, mind-bogglingly immense, nearly completely empty universe that predates us by 12 billion years+, or in other words, for ~99% of its existence it sat devoid of us, at least, if not intelligent life of some kind. Strictly speaking this says nothing about how we should see ourselves regarding our importance, how central the human experience and self-conscious, nuanced, moral existence and tribulations are. Even such a massive and drastic reevaluation of where we stand physically in the cosmos is technically in no way necessarily invalidates any traditional feeling or belief about humanity’s metaphorical or spiritual place in things. But doesn’t humanity seem to have felt like it means something about that? Haven’t we read meaning into the facts?
I think we have to be careful that a distrust of scientism should never become just as easy and comfortable of a default position for non-scientists/skeptics/philosophers/artists as scientism is for the “new atheists”/consumers and practitioners of pop neuro babble. The problem with both is that they have the potential to silence dialogue.
I meant to modify it but must’ve ran out of time. I wanted to refer as another example to the common sentiment that the horrors of the twentieth century fundamentally changed what theological and philosophical positions could be taken seriously. Should they? Why? Why is it more absurd now to maintain that this is the best of all possible worlds than it was in 1700 or so? Or is it? Why is it more untenable now to maintain that everything that happens is part of God’s plan or that history is the directed progression of society? All these things do seem more untenable and less likely in light of these facts, and I can’t help but feel that’s right, but it is interesting that in some sense, logically speaking, none of these things should matter, unless you believe they fundamentally changed the nature of the world. But how would that even be possible? Whatever has happened, it happened because there was always the capacity for it.
Anyway, not really science there but it seems related. I’d be curious to heart what people think about this interplay between events/facts and philosophical positions. Should the former matter to the latter, and if so, why?
It seems much of scientific sensationalism in today’s press is driven by the push in academics for self promotion. Perhpas the journalists aren’t entirely to blame for a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is and can do when they’re being fed information from institutions and medical centers who’s only goal is self-aggrandizing and promotion.
I think that you hit the nail on the head about academics (scientists) promoting and hyping themselves.
The same thing with social scientists like Pinker.
Wow, I read the New Yorker, but missed the news about Lehrer.
Here’s potential fodder for more on the cult of scientism and our need to have simplified science confirm our world view.
I was fooling around with George F. R. Ellis’ book on the kenotic structure of the universe and looked him up on Face Book. There is a page with 6 likes! Mine makes it 7. Perhaps some PEL readers could get it into the double digits!
For fun I went over to the FB page of his one time collaborator & peer Steven Hawkings–401k+ likes!
Then for more fun (it’s a rainy morning here in Maine) over to Wikipedia to find out that “In terms of Philosophy of science Ellis is a Platonist.”
OK, fair enough. So, I thought to look at Hawkins page to see if there is a similar note on his place in the philosophy of science. I found this:
“At Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in 2011, Hawking said that “philosophy is dead.” He believes philosophers “have not kept up with modern developments in science” and that scientists “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” He said that philosophical problems can be answered by science, particularly new scientific theories which “lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it”.”
OK, Wikipedia articles are often fan pages, but it is funny especially when compared to Ellis’. Made me think that you don’t need to be assigned a place in the philosophy of science if you ARE the philosophy of science. Paraphrasing, but never plagiarizing the ever humble Louis XIV.
Roger Penrose is another modern theoretical physicist who is a committed Platonist. He talks about it in the beginning of his (awesomely comprehensive) book “The Road to Reality.”
Disappointed to hear that about Hawking.
Very interesting read on that Wiki page!
Gary Chapin says
Mining the same vein as Wes, a take down of pseudo-scientism and the TED Talks phenomenon.
I think the real lesson of this story is to remember that popular science books are probably misrepresenting things. It’s as if the writer has a choice — be thorough and accurate or be successful.
Gary — I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with that article on TED, but it sure is fun to read!
Daniel McKay says
or (according to your partner), how the “not so big bang” explains your sex life…
Personally, I hope that one day the big bang can be used to explain my sex life. I long for the day when my sex life can be viewed from a 3rd person objective standpoint, devoid of all those subjective what-it-is-like-to-be experiences. Although, if it turns out that “the big bang theory” does explain my sex life, it might be better named “the small pop hypothesis.”