A Troubling Reflection: The Fall of Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer was, until recently, a wildly successful writer, blogger and lecturer, who wrote about many things involving neuroscience. However, as it transpires, a lot of what he published in books and blogs and other locations was shoddy science, insight-driven pattern fitting, unattributed or outright stolen. You can read about it here at the NYMag website.

This made me think about my own blog and whether I’m meeting the standards that I would like to. (Except in terms of ending sentences with prepositions.)  I’m very honest about not presenting anything here as being the double-blind passed rock-solid research reports of an expert, although there’s a big chunk of the empirical and some of my research interests do creep in. I’m also committed to citing the original authors, giving credit where credit is due and quoting correctly. If you want to see what my actual research looks like, you can find my papers on the Internet, having gone through peer review and then public presentation. This is where I think, share my thoughts and work on that elusive animal, community.

But is what I write here actually good science or do I spend too much time going “A-ha!” and then searching for supporters, or is my insight reflecting the amount of reading that I’m doing? I do read a lot of papers and references, I have to as I’m reading into a new area, but I look at Jonah’s critics and I wonder how much of what I write here is adding to the works that I discuss, or clarifying issues in a valid and reproducible way? What is anyone, including me, learning from this?

I’m neither looking for, or wanting, supporting comment or reassurance here, so I’m happy for the comments to stay tumbleweeds. This is a rhetorical question to allow me to link you to a sad tale of a young man overreaching himself, to his great and probably lasting detriment, and then to think about how I can use this to improve what I write here.

It is very easy to look at feedback in terms of “number of students who stayed in lecture” or “positive comments from the 10% of students who bothered to hand in their evaluations”, but the former could be an accident of cold weather, late class and bus timetables, while the latter is most likely a statistical anomaly. Feedback is the thing that you can use to help you improve and it doesn’t really matter where that comes from. The feedback that someone else gets, the places that are identified as where they are lacking, is also something that I can learn from. I don’t have formal teachers anymore. I have mentors, guides, students, peers, friends, partners and … the rest of the world.

I’m not sure how much good science I’ve been putting in here but I am aware that I am falling into what I shall refer to as the Pratchett/Vetinari Newspaper Conundrum a little too often. From my recollection, in “The Truth” by Terry Pratchett, the tyrant of Ankh-Morkpork (Lord Vetinari) notes how convenient it is that the paper always contains enough news to fill the pages. The implication being that the truth is being cut to fit the cloth, not the other way around. I am required to fill one post a day, somewhere between 500-1000 words, and I always seem to find a convenient research issue, story, anecdote or review to hold that space.

What would I do if I actually had nothing to say? Do I write a short piece on the trigger subjects of the gutter press, as they would, or do I publish nothing? I suspect that there have been times when my ‘insight’ posts have been fluff, with little substance, although I would hope that they are still enjoyable to read.

Let me, therefore, commit to maintaining the science/enjoyment separation and making it very clear when and where I am being rigorous and when I am not. And let me also commit to something that may have helped Jonah Lehrer. If I actually find one day that I have nothing to say, then I will try my hardest to say nothing. And I hope that, on that day, you’ll understand why.

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