Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why Smart People Are Stupid

This is the title of Jonah Lehrer’s penultimate blog post at The New Yorker. In the bitterest of ironies, it turned out this title refered to him. If anyone doesn’t know, Lehrer was on the path to a career in neuroscience when a few years ago he switched tracks to become the most lucid neuroscience popularizer – a best-selling author and a speaker commanding high fees at corporate events. Then, at some point, it all went fell apart. 

A few months ago, he took his popular blog, “The Frontal Cortex,” from Wired to The New Yorker. He had already written a couple of articles for the high-brow magazine, and was a staff writer there. But when he started posting, he merely recycled some older blog posts and articles for other publications – maybe because he was on that lecture tour promoting his new book, and did not have the time or energy to write anything fresh. When the cheating was discovered, he had to apologize, and The New Yorker inserted above his blog posts a comment regretting the “mistake.” And this was just the beginning of his downfall.

Lehrer’s new book, “Imagine,” seeks to uncover the neuroscientific formula for creativity in all fields – from poetry to the invention of the “post-it” note. The story he tells has many protagonist, but Bob Dylan is given a really central role there – with key quotes from famous songs, and from interviews. Initially, all went well for the book, which in a few months sold 200,000 thousand copies in had-cover and electronic formats. Until a journalist, a Dylan high priest, discovered that some of the “interview” quotes were fake. When he confronted the author, Lehrer initially stalled, and then lied that he had culled the quotes from unpublished interviews. Then his bluff was called, he was forced to resign from the New Yorker, and his publisher recalled all copies of “Imagine” from real and virtual bookstores.

A supersad story, indeed; almost a Greek tragedy. As David Remnick, The New Yorker editor, described it, “a terrifically sad situation” for the 31-year old prodigy. So, how can such a smart person like Lehrer be so stupid? Inspired by his writing, I am tempted to offer a neuroscientific explanation. What if his nervous system just buckled under the pressure of all that writing, online presence, traveling, public and other engagements, and pressure to score? And at some point became delusional?

Of course, as a former budding neuroscientist and incisive science writer he should have known better. But once you do become delusional, knowing better is often out of the equation. And "smart people" may have less of the existential grounding which could allow them to sense they are getting off the tracks.