The Lehrer Episode: When the Truth Doesn't Matter, We All Pay the Price

I'm a fan of smart people, especially smart writers. I could list boodles of such creatures --- and one of the great joys of a tool like Twitter is that it allows me to "follow" their work and thinking. Among them has been Jonah Lehrer: one of those absurdly young (he's only 31), hard-working, and therefore unnervingly prolific thinker/writers.

I say "has" because --- boy oh boy has he screwed up. I won't go into the details here (there's plenty online, but this is the place to start, followed by this piece about the start of his "downfall" earlier this summer).

Briefly: in the space of a few weeks, he's been caught recycling his own material and now, worse, flat-out lying in print. I'm sorry for him --- and baffled, too.

But that's not what prompts this post. Fury does.

Because I am furious. Here is yet another case of "facts" turning out to be lies. Another case of a writer making stuff up and passing it off as truth. (There have been so many of these in the past few years that if I linked to even half them, this post would be saturated in bright blue.)

Why do I care? Because I write non-fiction. Because I'm a historian and history is based on fact, not fiction. (*1) Let me repeat that: Historians start with FACTS. We don't get the pleasure of making stuff up. Our reputations, and the public's regard for our discipline, rest on our honesty.

So when people like Lehrer fuck with the facts, it makes EVERY non-fiction writer, historians and otherwise, look bad.

God knows the practice of history is already suffering thanks to the fictional history that's become so popular these days. (When a writer is praised for making "history" seem like a novel, chances are it's because that writer is taking liberties with the facts, typically by making up dialogue or ascribing knowledge of inner thoughts and motivation when he/she has no knowledge of them.) (And if no one minds, I won't mention names. I'm not interested in engaging in a public pissing contest.)

The more often Americans hear about fuckups like Lehrer (and what a shame that, in my mind, that's what he's become), the more likely they are to mistrust all writers of non-fiction. And the more likely they are to disregard substantive history in favor of the fictional stuff.

I can't say I blame them. After all, we know that politicians, to name the obvious example, lie on a regular basis as a way of promoting their cause. So why not journalists, public intellectuals, and historians?

It's no wonder that we Americans "enjoy" a reputation as "anti-intellectual." Why  bother with hard thinking and fact when any ol' made up shit will do?

Yes, I am more than a little pissed off.

UPDATE:  Michael Sacasas just remarked, via Twitter, that the Lehrer episode

could be the subject of a Lehrer-style book of neuro-moral psychology.

Indeed. As I said above, there have been SO many of these episodes that I wonder what's really going on. Surely more than a cavalier disregard for fact. Is this nothing more than the ease with which information is transmitted (and verifiable)? Or is there some weird, contemporary neuroses at work (perhaps connected to the ease with which we can communicate)? Who knows?


*1: Yes, yes, yes. I KNOW that a work of history reflects the historian's personal biases and interests. That no history can ever be objectively "true" because truth, to a certain extent, is in the eyes of the beholder. The facts that I amass and analyze are ones that I've chosen. And the analysis I arrive at is based on the way I choose to interpret those facts. But the operative word here is FACT. Historians start with FACTS.