The Fall of Jonah Lehrer (Part 3 of 4)

This is the third installment of a four-part series on the cultural context of contemporary popular science writing. Part I is here, Part II is here, and Part IV will appear next week. 

The first decade of the new millenium put the big—as in big money—in “Big Ideas.” From The Tipping Point (2000) to Freakonomics (2005) to Ted Talks (which started streaming in 2006), an intellectual economy emerged that put a premium (and a price) on counterintuitive conclusions.


In many ways, this was what I called “the house that Gladwell built” in my first post. However, my second post suggested a more structural explanation for the sort of popular science peddled by Malcolm Gladwell and what one source has called “the Gladwell clones and wannabes who specialize in writing counterintuitive books that explain the world.”

Let’s flesh this out a bit further. When people “copy Malcolm Gladwell,” what exactly are they copying? Is it different if the person in question is a journalist, a scientist, an academic, or none of the above? With specific reference to Jonah Lehrer, is there something about his position vis-a-vis Gladwell (e.g. in the image above, or as heir apparent) that set him up for the fall that spurred these posts?

What’s so special about Gladwell? It’s not (just) his writing: though he’s got a way with words, so do tons of others—some of whom also get jobs with the New Yorker. Though there’s certainly a market for the artful rendering of difficult, technical topics—witness the rise of Nate Silver—I don’t see Gladwell as better enough than the competition to justify his earnings on that alone.

Nor is it what we might call “the ideas themselves,” since—famously—they’re not his own, but rather (as Steven Pinker put it) “counterintuitive findings from little-known experts” (more on expertise in a second). In reality, it’s probably some combination of the two: it’s these particular ideas, packaged in this particular way, that’s made for a winning combination (and million dollar advances).

This seems right, but it leaves unexplained what precisely “these ideas” are and why there’s such a market for them now. Oh, and what did Malcolm Gladwell have to do with it? It happens that many would agree with Ross Douthat’s “quotation” (you see the irony) of Allen Ginsberg on the matter:

Douthat on Lehrer (Source:

Okay, but how? If New York was even partly right to say that, in the last decade, “the shocking hidden side of everything became the only side of anything worthy of magazine covers and book deals,” then does Gladwell deserve credit or was it just “right place, right time” (an argument Gladwell himself prefers)?
One interpretation I like is that Gladwell’s “non-threatening answers” were timed perfectly. The Tipping Point coincided with a real “tipping point”: the dot-com bubble burst within a month of the book’s appearance. We needed a sense of security and Gladwell reassured us that “our elites know what is going on, and the complexity of the world can be explained in a calm, hip, erudite way.”*
This genre—into which Lehrer’s work certainly fits—wasn’t just about being hip and erudite. These books are about “big ideas,” in the sense (according to one definition) that they “center around a counterintuitive or provocative theme” and explain “why things are not as they seem.”

Coming up with such claims is tough: hence, if you’ve got one, you’ll probably reuse it (self-plagiarism) and, if you haven’t, you might be driven to pretend that you do. Slate took this analysis to the extreme: as sales went up, Lehrer “ceased to be a writer” and “moved into the idea business”: 

This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.

“Ideas” are the way you get from writing to lecturing—in which you can sell the same ideas again and again, for prices that keep going up and up. New York Observer piece put it best: “Old model: tour the country to promote your book. New model: write a book to tour the country.” 
How TED, you might say. And indeed, Lehrer’s fall has been attributed to the “ecosystem” of TED, which has itself come under both probing scrutiny (by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker) and withering critique (by Evgeny Morozov in The New Republic). In this world, complexity is reduced to soundbites and data are sheered of their subtlety—often not by the scientists and innovators whose ideas are being celebrated, but by journalistic “packagers” like Gladwell, Lehrer, and David Brooks
Is this bad? Not necessarily. But it does raise another issue that’s central to science studies: the nature of expertise. I’ll wait til next week to get into the details of “evolutionary psychology” and the boundary-work that goes on around it. Today, let me close instead with another figure in the world of popular social science (in this case, statistics): Nate Silver

Much (digital) ink’s been spilled about Silver since the election (here’s a guide)—some pronounced him the actual winner of the 2012 election, others derided his data-driven approach as a joke. What I’m most interested in is the upshot of Silver’s remarkable success: political reporting will now be more data-driven, many say, and journalism in general should cultivate new experts on an old model. 
A Newsweek post called “Statisticians on the Bus” (among others) calls for a new generation of “Quant Pundits” to displace the “mile-wide, inch-deep political reporters” of yesteryear. Silver himself agrees—for example, he told Stephen Colbert that if he had the choice between pundits and ebola, he’d choose the latter
Though I’m tired (and skeptical) of the “statistics vs. narrative” framework in which this discussion’s taken place, I think we have to recognize both the pull that binary has and what the stakes are in terms of who we trust. 
A recent post on Scientific American connects Silver to “the ascendence of expertise” in an interesting way. Though the politics are a bit flat-footed, the post’s author correctly notes that Silver’s success has ridden on a general trend at the New York Times to hire “people with real expertise” to provide commentary. 
Though some see expertise in accreditation (e.g. a Ph.D.) and others see it as self-guided exploration (e.g. long-term bloggers), it seems to be the province of hedgehogs rather than foxes. Knowledge can be wide; expertise has to be deep. What’s more, the sort of stuff Silver’s up to requires real statistical chops—not necessarily top of the line stuff, but enough to get by in an age of big data. 
Whether that’s exactly expertise I’ll leave to the reader. What I wanted to point out, by way of foregrounding my next (and final) post, is that there’s something at stake in the difference between a Silver and a Lehrer—and that it’s hard to figure out precisely what it is. Next week, I’ll zero in on what makes Gladwell and Lehrer different from Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond.
*Note: Gladwell applied his trademark approach to the problem of plagiarism itself back in 2004

5 thoughts on “The Fall of Jonah Lehrer (Part 3 of 4)

  1. Dan

    Thanks for this Hank. The Lehrer debacle has provided some impetus for us to think more about some aspects of popular science writing today—a topic Lee raised in his early post on RadioLab—and you'd doing a great job here of digging a bit deeper. I am generally a fan of Gladwell and RadioLab and the like (more so than Science Friday, which led the previous decade's science popularization, but never so successfully), so I appreciate the spur to think critically about my media consumption habits.

    It strikes me that the “new” model mentioned here: the book gets you an invitation to the much more important lecture circuit, isn't all that new. Academics nearly always “leverage” their books—into lectures, but more importantly into lecturer and professor positions. Policy books since Machiavelli have been aimed at getting their authors into more important and plusher adviser roles. And in the days before the mass market in books (in the pre-best seller days), books nearly always played second fiddle to lectures. I cannot help but think of the hey-dey of lectures in the early-mid-nineteenth century, when Emerson headlined every city lyceum North or South, followed soon after by lecturers on medicine and phrenology, on hydrostatics and whaling.

    The lyceum comparison stikes me as the most apt because of the moral/political vision and self-improvement cast of the “house that Gladwell built.” I think one of the reasons Gladwell appeals so much is that he manages to lend some serious moral weight to the little known social science he works from. _Outliers_ and the work he did around that struck me as important more for its commitment to democratizing liberal markets than for its scientific insights. Gladwell steers far clear of revolutionary politics, but he stands as a credible voice for making existing systems for allocating opportunity more open, democratic, and humane. I think that political message explains his popularity as much as some of his more obvious formal techniques.


  2. Hank

    Thanks for the long(u)er-durée history, Dan. I agree that something about this sounds like lycea, which also constituted (if we believe Paul Lucier's excellent Isis article on professionals) a legitimate way to make a living back in the day. I'd just say two things in response:

    (1) Part of Lucier's point is that public lecturing declined as a career model about a century ago, thanks in no small part to the professionalization process for which he provides the backstory. So, while we're seeing a return to something that looks familiar, it's “new” in the context of the disciplinary and vocational backdrop against which it's playing out. Since that's what's interesting (I'm discussing Pinker-as-academic next week), I don't want to lose it to that “this ain't new” move favored by medievalists and others.

    (2) On politics in particular, I think your point's also spot-on – though you might be interested in the latter half of the article I cite above on the dot-com timing. Though I haven't decided if he's totally right, Garland argues there that Gladwell-esque answers are part of how we avoid asking ourselves the really hard questions. Think of The Onion's sendup of TED: I think there's something to the critique that dividing “ideas” from “implementation” evacuates what really matters from the discussion.


  3. Lee

    Thanks, Hank, for this great post and, Dan, for the longer term view. I only want to add one little thing, which I think fits both with your thoughts on lyceums and with these ideas about politics.

    When I worked at a Barnes and Noble to blow off steam about five years ago, Gladwells books were housed in the Business section of the store. As you both know, business books are a special genre, but if a book takes off in that space, it is likely to do very, very well. I think this fact says something both about the marketing strategies around G's work and his (perceived) politics, which reassure, rather than challenge, and are transformable into easily digestible sound bites that are meat-and-potatoes of the business section.

    On to Pinker!!!


  4. Hank

    I remember discussing similar things about Jared Diamond's reception. Which is interesting, since while Diamond offers simple solutions to complex (and possibly misguided) questions — which corporate conference keynote attendees like, I guess? — it seems like his work is less directly applicable in the market than e.g. Freakonomics or Gladwell's stuff. I'll talk about this stuff next week.


  5. Dan

    I didn't intend exactly to play the “this isn't entirely new” card as a way of undermining your analysis. Rather, I think you're addressing a more general problem for scientists or public intellectuals here, a problem that has to do with mis-matching conventions and with the ultimate messiness of making a living and making science. No matter what time we're talking about, people are facing time pressures, trying to make their voice heard, and seeking professional advancement. I thought of that this morning while scanning a couple reels of microfilm containing the published papers of the economist Irving Fisher—the guy couldn't write anything without getting it republished (usually without any mention of it being republished) in half a dozen other newspapers and journals. Clearly, this was acceptable academic/public intellectual practice in the early 20th century. Fisher did it to advance his cause (public health reform, among others), to win a place in public discussions and in influential committees, to gain allies (life insurers among others), and probably for some personal reasons. The problem of navigating a complex media landscape and making the most of one's scientific work is a very old one and well worth engaging in for its particularities, as you're doing here.



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