Finally and fatally, what ties the narrative together is not some real insight into the nature of Dylan’s art, but a self-help lesson: Take a break to recharge. To anyone versed in Dylan, this story was almost unrecognizable. Lehrer’s intellectual chutzpah was startling: His conclusions didn’t shed new light on the facts; they distorted or invented facts, with the sole purpose of coating an unrelated and essentially useless lesson with the thinnest veneer of plausibility.
It’s the same way with the science that “proves” the lesson. Lehrer quotes one neuroscientist, Mark Beeman, as saying that “an insight is like finding a needle in a haystack”—presumably an insight like Dylan’s, though Beeman’s study hinges on puzzles. Beeman tells me, “That doesn’t sound like me,” because it’s absolutely the wrong analogy for how the brain works—“as if a thought is embedded in one connection.” In the next chapter, Lehrer links his tale of Dylan’s refreshed creativity to Marcus Raichle’s discoveries on productive daydreaming. But Raichle tells me those discoveries aren’t about daydreaming. Then why, I ask, would Lehrer draw that conclusion? “It sounds like he wanted to tell a story.”
Consider another tall tale, this one from Lehrer’s previous book, How We Decide. Discussing what happens when we choke under pressure, Lehrer invokes the famous case of Jean Van de Velde, a golfer who blew a three-stroke lead in the eighteenth hole of the final round of the 1999 British Open. In Lehrer’s telling, the pressure caused Van de Velde to choke, focusing on mechanics and “swinging with the cautious deliberation of a beginner with a big handicap.”
Lehrer tees this up as a transition to a psychological study on overthinking. It fits perfectly into what one critic called “the story-study-lesson cycle” of this kind of book. And just like Dylan’s “insight,” it’s largely made up. Here too he flubs an important fact: Van de Velde didn’t lose outright: He tied and lost the subsequent playoff. But then there is the larger deception. Most golf commentators thought at the time that he simply chose risky clubs—that he wasn’t handicapped by anxiety, but undone by cockiness. Van de Velde agreed; he played too aggressively. A month after the disaster, he said, “I could not live with myself knowing that I tried to play for safety and blew it.” Lehrer just rewrote the history to reach a conclusion flatly contradicted by the story of how Van de Velde actually decided.
Unlike the books, Lehrer’s New Yorker pieces were thoroughly fact-checked. But even there, his conclusions are facile. One popular story, published in 2010, is especially symptomatic of how he misrepresents science—and harms it in the process. Headlined “The Truth Wears Off,” it sets out to describe a curious phenomenon in scientific research: the alarmingly high number of study results that couldn’t be repeated in subsequent experiments. Researchers worry a lot about this tendency, sometimes called the “decline effect.” But they’ve settled on some hard, logical truths: Studies are incredibly difficult to design well; scientists are biased toward positive results; and the more surprising the finding, the more likely it is to be wrong. Good theories require good science, and science that can’t be replicated isn’t any good.
That wasn’t Lehrer’s approach. His story begins, instead, with the question, “Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” To answer that question definitively would require a very rigorous review of research practice—one that demonstrated persuasively that even the most airtight studies produced findings that couldn’t be replicated. Lehrer’s conclusion is considerably more mystical, offering bromides where analysis should be: “Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.” It sounds an awful lot like the Zen-lite conclusion of Imagine: “Every creative story is different. And every creative story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.”
By August 14, the storm seemed to be passing. That morning, Lehrer’s aunt had breakfast in California with an old friend. While fretting over her nephew, she mentioned innocently that Lehrer still had an outstanding contract with Wired. Her friend happened to be the mother of Jonah Peretti, a founder of the website BuzzFeed, who gladly published the “update.” Wired confirmed that Lehrer was still under contract, but said it wouldn’t publish anything more until a full vetting of his blog posts, already under way, was completed.
In fact, the real online vetting hadn’t even begun, and probably wouldn’t have happened if not for Lehrer’s chatty aunt. On the 16th, wired.com editor-in-chief Evan Hansen called Charles Seife, a science writer and journalism professor at NYU, to ask if he could investigate Lehrer’s hundreds of Frontal Cortex posts. It was too much work, so they settled on a mere eighteen, some of them known to have problems. Seife found a range of issues, from recycling—in most of the stories—to lazy copying from press releases, a couple of slightly fudged quotes, and three cases of outright plagiarism. (In fairness, there was only one truly egregious case of stealing.)