Of course we all have to acknowledge how incredibly sad it is that the beloved brainchild of the brain, Jonah Lehrer, has gone down. Not only has he packed up his New Yorker blog, but his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has pulled his top-selling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. All because he self-plagiarized and made up some Bob Dylan quotes.
First, can we acknowledge, in addition to the incredible sadness, how morbidly funny this situation is? I mean, really. Imagine? How Creativity Works? Well, it works by making stuff up. Plus, creativity helps to take original ideas out of context or combine disparate ideas that had nothing to do with one another. That’s fucking imagination. Second, can we imagine, just for a moment, the lengths to which Lehrer’s own personal imagination must have gone in order to even desire pulling off such a ridiculous (and probably unnecessary) deception?
I don’t have a degree in neuroscience, so I can’t begin to explain whatever logical or evolutionary brain systems were responsible for Lehrer’s many missteps. But I do have a healthy imagination, so I’d like to propose a few made-up justifications for Lehrer’s choices. (For a rundown of those choices, check out this article in Tablet.)
He’s actually into psychology and wants neuroscience, as a hip intellectual phenomenon, to fail
In the raging battle fought between sciences for popularity—a vicious, cutthroat, and often violent battle—accuracy and peer-reviewed precision are daggers the scientists use to kill each other’s dreams of maybe being read one day. For Lehrer to so blatantly flout the basic tenets of science changes the conversation from science to feelings. Shame, doubt, disappointment...the interest now is not how fun our brains are but how messed up and totally incomprehensible they are.
He believed himself to be beyond reproach
In other words, he’s got gigantic, delusional balls. Of the gazillion people who are huge fans of Bob Dylan, approximately half have devoted their lives to studying and memorizing everything the man has ever said. How could Lehrer think no one would notice discrepancies? Also, and this is just a hunch, as I haven’t had the chance to read Imagine, but were the fabricated quotes even necessary to prove his arguments? I sincerely doubt the neuroscience of creativity lives or dies based on the lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone." I'd also like to thank the New York Times for pointing out that Dylan himself likes to keep his facts slippery. Which either means A) Lehrer's mirroring Dylan but just didn't know how to explain the joke to the rest of us, or B) see "delusional balls."
...and is ragingly jealous that, even with his mind-blowingly hot career, he will still never be as cool as Dylan. Let’s say little Lehrer is at the kitchen table working studiously on some homework while mom has Blonde on Blonde playing in the background. Lehrer tries to show her how his genius kid mind just did something awesome but she’s a little busy singing along to “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” Lehrer launches further into his studies in hopes of one day gaining recognition and becomes super famous neuroscience man, not only succeeding academically but making neuroscience fucking hip. But who will always be hipper than neuroscientists? Rock stars. And as much as Lehrer has utilized science to show us some awesome and true things about humanity, Dylan kinda also already showed us a shit-ton of awesome and true things about humanity. And Dylan didn’t need a degree or science or anything else to do it.
I do think there's an opportunity here for us to acknowledge the fallibility of human beings and get all warm and fuzzy about how all of us fuck up all the time. But what I'd prefer to take away from the whole affair is this: artists are better than scientists, both ethically and as conduits of truth. Bob Dylan uses storytelling and fabrication in order to reach certain truths that never relied on the facts of the matter, but which ring true in people's hearts anyway. Lehrer's entire body of work relies on facts building on top of one another to establish a particular reassurance of truth. Artists work at bringing about new truths from what never existed before. Scientists have a different kind of task, one that must reveal the truth of that which already exists.
The great tragedy, I think (among the many small tragedies here), is that Lehrer could've probably come up with much better untrue things to say.