Last week the journalism world was buzzing about — guess who? — Jonah Lehrer. Yes, again. We knew about the science writer’s self-plagiarism and Bob-Dylan-quote fabrication. Last week a New York Magazine exposé by Boris Kachka claimed that Lehrer also deliberately misrepresented other people’s ideas.
Kachka’s piece led to some fascinating discussions about whether it’s possible to tell a science story that’s both riveting and fully accurate. Science journalist Carl Zimmer, for example, wrote a thoughtful, inspiring post about the messiness of science. All of the commentary left me wanting to hear more details from the scientists in Lehrer’s stories. Had they been misrepresented? If so, how? Were they upset? Did they complain?
Kachka and Zimmer zeroed in on a 2010 story about the scientific method that Lehrer wrote for the New Yorker. The story’s premise is clear from the title (“The Truth Wears Off”), the subtitle (“Is there something wrong with the scientific method?”), the nutgraf (“It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable.”), and the last few lines (“Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.”).
This article works well in Kachka’s piece for two reasons. First, it has a dash of got-cha! Schadenfreude: Well well well, fabricator Jonah Lehrer doesn’t believe in truth! The second reason, and the one I care about, is that the article was vetted by the New Yorker‘s famous fact-checkers. It has no tweaked quotes, no plagiarism, no obviously wrong statistics or data points — in other words, none of the easy mistakes that all of us make, occasionally, and might be forgiven, occasionally. Lehrer’s offense in this piece, at least according to Kachka, is worse than any of that. Lehrer describes an idea — The scientific method is broken — as if many scientists support it. Do they?
Read more at…