1. Learning from Lehrer

    By Paul Reali

    In the creativity world, we celebrate failure.

    This can be difficult to grasp, especially for those companies (um, most of them) who have a history of punishing failure. Failure, mistake, error—these are all part of the creative process. Contrary to popular belief, rare is the idea that pops into the brain as a fully formed, shovel-ready solution. The bulk of the creative process is the hard work of turning that half-formed, half-baked, half-witted idea into a workable, novel, implementable solution. Along the way are mistakes, and missteps, and restarts, and outright failure.

    There is no creativity without risk, there is no risk if there is no failure, therefore there is no creativity without failure.

    It might be natural, then, for us to celebrate the failures of Jonah Lehrer.

    In case you’re not familiar with the case, Jonah Lehrer is a creative guy, a writer who mostly deals with science and the brain. He is the author of the best-sellers Proust was a Neuroscientist, and Imagine: How Creativity Works, and he was a columnist for The New Yorker. It recently came to light that he had fabricated quotes in Imagine and had been reusing his old work for new New Yorker columns. He has since been fired from the magazine, and had his book recalled, if you can imagine such a thing.

    But before any of this came to light, I and many of my creativity colleagues had a beef with Jonah Lehrer. In Imagine, and in several widely-circulated articles, blog posts, and interviews based on the book, Lehrer assailed brainstorming, one of my community’s favored tools, as not working. It wasn’t that he called brainstorming into question; that’s been going on for years. Rather, we felt that: a) his conclusion was unsupportable and ridiculous (he did not say, for instance, that other methods might work better than brainstorming, but that brainstorming does not work; b) selectively chose and interpreted data to fit his conclusion; c) misunderstood brainstorming in the first place; and d) it got a lot of attention. (The best critique I’ve read of Lehrer’s conclusions and how he used the data come from Scott Berkun.)

    I (and, I suspect, many of my creativity colleagues) want to celebrate the failures of Jonah Lehrer, but not in the usual way—not celebrating the failure that is an inevitable byproduct of the creative process. No: if we celebrate, it’s of the “it couldn’t have happened to a nice guy” variety. If we celebrate, it’s because the guy who maligned and misunderstood creativity did so while misusing his own creativity.

    Creativity, as noted at the beginning of this piece, is mostly about hard work, so let’s look at Lehrer’s mistakes through that lens.

    Creativity is cognitive, as is the creative act of writing. Lehrer’s job, like that of other non-fiction writers (think, for example, of Malcolm Gladwell, with whom Lehrer is often compared), is the cognitive hard work of learning a great deal about a subject and then distilling it clearly for his readers. There are conclusions to draw, connections to be made, evidence to present, positions to argue.

    In that mission, here is what Lehrer did: he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes, selected questionable research, and falsely interpreted that research, all in order to support his pre-selected points of view. Add to this what he was accused of at The New Yorker: he reused his earlier work and called it new. (This has been called “self-plagarism,” a nonsense phrase.) What binds all these crimes together?


    If the data doesn’t support the conclusions, then change your conclusion, even if it means rewriting or doing more research. If the subject did not say what you wanted him to say, find someone else to say it, or rethink your conclusion. If you are hired to do original work at your job, go and take the time to do it.

    Is Jonah Lehrer actually physically lazy? I don’t know. Maybe he was intellectually lazy. Maybe he was rushed. Maybe he was feeling the pressure of one anointed as a young genius. Whatever it was, the result was not one of those failures that inevitably come with being creative; no, it was a human’s failure to respect the creative process, a failure to do all the rigorous work the creative process requires.

    All creative persons experience failure. But in the end, this one is tragic for Jonah Lehrer. This is not one to celebrate.

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    Posted: 2 years ago