Jonah Lehrer: When Writing, Creativity, and Imagination Go Too Far

For those of us who write, the news that a very talented and successful writer has been discredited because of his or her own unethical actions is something that hurts us all—professionally as well as personally. At a painfully obvious level, it fuels the arguments of those who want to see inaccuracies and bias in every piece of nonfiction writing or broadcast reporting they encounter. So the news that Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works has been withdrawn from the market by its publisher and that Lehrer has had to resign from his position as a writer for The New Yorker is very bad news, indeed.

From what has been reported to date, Lehrer’s first completely inexcusable mistake in Imagine was to fabricate quotes and add a made-up sentence to an actual quote from singer-songwriter Bob Dylan—an amazingly bad lapse of judgment given that much of the material with which Lehrer was working in Imagine appears to have already provided ample support to points he was making about how the creative process works. He then reportedly compounded the error by engaging in an extended game of obfuscation over a three-week period with writer Michael C. Moynihan, who documented the initial fabrications and his exchanges with Lehrer on the subject in an article published in Tablet Magazine this week. Lehrer’s work, furthermore, has been questioned and criticized by others, including a reviewer for The New York Times who raised plenty of questions about Lehrer’s conclusions drawn from research he cited after an earlier reviewer for the newspaper had praised the book.

What made Imagine so appealing to so many of us when it was released earlier this year was that Lehrer’s writing was so clear and crisp; his summaries of numerous research studies seemed well supported through citations in the book’s endnotes; and his conclusions seemed to be consistent with what we had seen from other writers and studies. It inspired us to recommend the book in our own reviews and essays and to connect Lehrer’s work to fields in which we work, as I did in a piece written for the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD) Learning Technology online community of practice.

So the news that this apparently wonderful, engaging, and thought-provoking book has, overnight, almost completely disappeared from bookstores and websites, and will apparently only remain available through libraries or on the shelves of those of us who obtained copies before the publisher’s understandable recall, is extremely dispiriting.

I’ve never before faced the situation where a book has been recalled after I had so favorably written about it and also used it as a jumping off point for the sort of piece I wrote for ASTD; the news that the book had been pulled, therefore, left me wondering how to handle a revelation like that one in an age where we can actually withdraw our online reviews and even ask that an online article be withdrawn. The dilemma sent me back to re-read the brief online review I posted on a few sites and to also reread that ASTD article. And when I was finished, I walked away with extremely mixed feelings: on the one hand, I felt that what I had been inspired to write for the ASTD posting still had value, so I’m not going to ask that it go the way of the book itself and be withdrawn; on the other hand, I have already deleted the online reviews since it seems silly to offer any type of rating or critique for a book that a publisher has pulled back.

Ultimately, because I do still believe the book as published had—and still has—value in making us think creatively about the science of the creative process—even though, by Lehrer’s own admission, he was irresponsibly creative in imagining quotes for attribution—I’m going to keep an earlier blog posting online, along with an acknowledgment that the book has been withdrawn—as a reminder of how a good book could have been a great book if the writer had been faithful to the basic precepts of accuracy in nonfiction writing. As a reminder that the act of writing in an onsite-online world exposes us to greater scrutiny—and more assurance of comeuppance when deserved—than anything we’ve ever before experienced. And as a reminder that when a member of our extended community of writers takes a terribly wrong turn, the rest of us need to Imagine ourselves in that position—and avoid it at all costs.

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