The Harder They Fall

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Believe it or not, I’m not really one for jumping on bandwagons, but today I’m going to throw that aversion to the winds and jump on one with all the force and fury of a teenage hurricane.

That is to say…hard.

The bandwagon in question is, simply put, the one in which massive chunks of the American literary population are out for Jonah Lehrer’s blood. I should clarify that I am not angry at him so much as I feel utterly betrayed and brokenhearted. My feelings are akin to a 16-year-old who’s just found out that Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson (but perhaps a little deeper, because I’m a writer and that girl was probably not a movie star).

Because I love science writing, and because Jonah Lehrer was so damn good at it, I completely idolized him. I loved his books, loved his articles, was even planning on seeing one of his talks the next time he was in town. I can only be grateful that I hadn’t yet gotten around to reading his latest book, as that was the one that brought it all crumbling down.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Lehrer was caught fabricating Bob Dylan quotes to fit his argument in Imagine: How Creativity Works. Michael Moynihan is credited for the distinction of having “caught” him, after Lehrer was cagey for over a month about the exact genesis of those ever-so-poignant quotes.

I can make neither head nor tail of this highly harebrained, seemingly senseless decision. Lehrer was obviously a brilliant thinker with the world at his feet. Moreover, Bob Dylan is one of the most famous people on the planet, and is still alive to boot. It’s the perfect storm of bad idea. So why didn’t Lehrer’s alarm bells go off before he submitted this to his publisher?

Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics and psychology at Duke University, provides a few answers in a recent conversation with Wired Magazine. Lying and cheating, it turns out, almost never involve a cost-benefit analysis.

“I’ve been talking to big cheaters, including people who have been to prison, and I tell you, nobody I’ve talked to has ever thought about the long-term consequences of their actions,” Ariely said.

This fascinates me. I will admit that I have cheated twice: once in high school and once in college. Both times were with boys I thought were super cute, benefited me little, and caused me an enormous amount of stress. Does that mean I’m just not cut out for cheating, or that I’m just not used to it? The truth is I do have a baser self, and might – just might – consider more dishonest behavior if it weren’t for the larger-than-life Jiminy Cricket screaming in my ear at all times, “Don’t do it! Your life will be ruined! You can never face yourself again! Your mother will be sorry she birthed you nooooooooo!”

That’s not a voice I can quell, hence my anxiety both times I forayed into the realm of the dishonest. But, Ariely explains, it really isn’t as simple as deciding to defraud the public or not to; someone in my current state would never make that decision… but someone I could become, given time, might.

“We can look at a cheater and say, we would have never been able to do that,” he says. “But when we look at the long sequence of events, you see it happened over time. You can ask, did the person who was the criminal think they would take all of these actions, or did they just take one? They took one step that they could rationalize. And after they took one, they became a slightly different person. And then they took another step, and another step. And now you think very differently about dishonesty.”

Some writers even question the basis of Lehrer’s brand of science writing in the first place. Was it always too simplistic? If undeniably educational and enjoyable, can it really be called science? And if it wasn’t science in the first place, then who’s to stop the first initial step away from… ahem…pure truth, and then the next and the next?

These are especially worrisome questions for a self-appointed pseudo-scientific thinker like myself and are, unfortunately, ones I definitely cannot answer. I suppose the best bet, just like our mothers told us so long ago, is never to go down that road in the first place. Don’t take the first step, and you’ll never have to worry about the next one.

Thanks, Mom.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg for PopTech/Wikimedia Commons)

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