The tradition of the author’s lecture tour goes back at least as far as Charles Dickens. But its latest incarnation began with Gladwell in 2000. The Tipping Point, his breakthrough best seller, didn’t sell itself. His publisher, Little, Brown, promoted the book by testing out its theory—that small ideas become blockbusters through social networks. Gladwell was sent across the country not just to promote his book but to lecture to booksellers about the secrets of viral-marketing. Soon The New Yorker was dispatching him to speak before advertisers, charming them and implicitly promoting the magazine’s brand along with his own. Increasingly, he became a commodity in his own right, not just touring a book (which authors do for free) but giving “expert” presentations to professional groups who pay very well—usually five figures per talk.
Gladwell was quickly picked up by Bill Leigh, whose Leigh Bureau handles many of the journalist-lecturers of the aughts wave. Asked what bookers require from his journalist clients, Bill Leigh simply says, “The takeaway. What they’re getting is that everyone hears the same thing in the same way.” The writers, in turn, get a paying focus group for their book-in-progress. Leigh remembers talking to his client, the writer Steven Johnson, about how to package his next project. “He wanted to take his book sales to the next level,” says Leigh. “Out of those conversations came his decision to slant his material with a particular innovation feel to it.” That book was titled Where Big Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. His new one is called Future Perfect.
One of the sharpest critiques of this new guard of nonspecialist Insight peddlers came from a surprising source, a veteran of the lecture circuit who decried “our thirst for nonthreatening answers.” “I’m essentially a technocrat, a knowledge worker,” says Eric Garland, who was a futurist long before that became a trendy descriptor. A past consultant to some of the Insight men’s favorite companies—3M, GM, AT&T—Garland is wistful for a time when speakers were genuine experts in sales, leadership, and cell phones. “Has Jonah Lehrer ever presented anything at a neuroscience conference?” he asks a touch dismissively.
Lehrer has not. But Gladwell actually did give a talk, in 2004, at an academic conference devoted to decision-making. “Some people were outraged by the simplification,” remembers one attendee, who likes Gladwell’s work. Someone stood up and asked if he should be more careful about citing sources.
In reply, Gladwell offered another anecdote. A while back, he’d found out that the playwright Bryony Lavery’s award-winning play, Frozen, cribbed quotes from one of his stories. Though he might have sued Lavery for plagiarism, Gladwell concluded that, no, the definition of plagiarism was far too broad. The important thing is not to pay homage to the source material but to make it new enough to warrant the theft. Lavery’s appropriation wasn’t plagiarism but a tribute. “I thought it was a terrible answer,” says the attendee. “If there was ever an answer that was about rationalization, this was it.”
The worst thing about Lehrer’s “decline effect” story is that the effect is real—science is indeed in trouble—and Lehrer is part of the problem. Last month, the Nobel laureate behavioral economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman sent a mass e-mail to colleagues warning that revelations of shoddy research and even outright fraud had cast a shadow over the hot new subfield of “social priming” (which studies how perceptions are influenced by subtle cues and expectations). Others blamed the broader “summer of our discontent,” as one science writer called it, on a hunger for publicity that leads to shaved-off corners or worse.
“There’s a habit among science journalists to treat a single experiment as something that is newsworthy,” says the writer-psychologist Steven Pinker. “But a single study proves very little.” The lesson of the “decline effect,” as Pinker sees it, is not that science is fatally flawed, but that readers have been led to expect shocking discoveries from a discipline that depends on slow, stutter-step progress. Call it the “TED effect.” Science writer Carl Zimmer sees it especially in the work of Lehrer and Gladwell. “They find some research that seems to tell a compelling story and want to make that the lesson. But the fact is that science is usually a big old mess.”
Sadly, Lehrer knows exactly how big a mess it is, especially when it comes to neuroscience. One of his earliest blog posts, back in 2006, was titled “The Dirty Secrets of fMRI.” Its subject was the most appealing tool of brain science, functional magnetic-resonance imaging. Unlike its cousin the MRI, fMRI can take pictures of the brain at work, tracking oxygen flow to selected chunks while the patient performs assigned tasks. The most active sections are thus “lit up,” sometimes in dazzling colors, seeming to show clumps of neurons in mid-thought. But in that early blog post, Lehrer warned of the machine’s deceptive allure. “The important thing,” he concluded, “is to not confuse the map of a place for the place itself.”