I was Jonah Lehrer’s editor at Seed magazine, which I believe was the first magazine to publish his writing on neuroscience, and the originator of his “Frontal Cortex” blog. One of the stories we worked on together was included in the 2007 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing (although that one, in truth, didn’t need much help from me).
He is one of the most talented, hard-working, meticulous, and careful writers I’ve edited (a group that includes Dave Eggers, Geraldine Brooks, Peter Godwin, Michael Eric Dyson, Evan Ratliff, Bryan Walsh, Jake Silverstein, and Tom Clynes). And having first-hand experience of the fact-checking departments at The New Yorker and Wired, the magazines for which Lehrer most recently wrote, I doubt very much that his manufacturing or misuse of quotes extends much to his magazine writing.
Here, before focusing on whether that Lehrer-Tullis collaboration was anywhere near as great as the “Best American Science and Nature Writing” people thought it was, I should acknowledge that the way Tullis defended Lehrer pissed me off. I tweeted about it here and here. I especially hated that Tullis used the words “essentially accurate, even if it isn’t technically” to describe a fake Bob Dylan quote Lehrer tried to pass off as the real thing: “It’s not as if he quoted Dylan as saying, ‘I’m a Wiccan,’ or ‘Wallace Stevens was a sucky poet.’”
I still believe what I tweeted after reading that: “the ‘not as if he quoted Dylan as saying, “I’m a Wiccan”’ bit is unequivocally beneath anyone who belongs in journalism.”
I’m glad I put it that way because I don’t know Paul Tullis. I don’t know his work. As much as I believe he wrote something unequivocally beneath anyone who belongs in journalism, I don’t pretend to know whether he belongs in journalism. I’m going to assume that he does.
Tullis can — and should — reconsider what he wrote. A great first step would be for him to take a fresh look at that “Best American Science and Nature Writing” story he edited, "The Effeminate Sheep and Other Problems With Darwinian Sexual Selection." Here’s some of what I noticed after a single reading of the story and a bit of Googling.
Lehrer was writing about a living scientist locked in an argument with a dead scientist. The living scientist was Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden. The dead scientist was Charles Darwin. Being dead, Darwin was not someone Lehrer could call for a quote. So I found it hugely reassuring that Lehrer seemed to know Darwin’s writings:
Darwin’s hypothesis was typically brilliant: The peacocks did it for the sake of reproduction. The male’s fancy tail entranced the staid peahen. Darwin used this idea to explain the biological quirks that natural selection couldn’t explain. If a trait wasn’t in the service of survival, then it was probably in the service of seduction. Furthermore, the mechanics of sex helped explain why the genders were so different. Because eggs are expensive and sperm are cheap, “Males of almost all animals have stronger passions than females,” Darwin wrote. “The female…with the rarest of exceptions is less eager than the male…she is coy.”
That’s a good quote, especially the “she is coy” bit. But given Lehrer’s Dylan fraud, I wanted to make sure Darwin really wrote “she is coy.” So I plugged “The female…with the rarest of exceptions is less eager than the male…she is coy” into Google Books. The top result, unfortunately, wasn’t Darwin. Darwin wasn’t even on the first page. The top result was a 2004 book by the very same living scientist Lehrer was writing about for Seed magazine in 2006, Stanford’s Joan Roughgarden.
The most friendly explanation is that both Lehrer and Roughgarden independently reached into Darwin’s The Descent of Man, found the same 291-word passage, and distilled it to the same 26 words, splicing the new passage together with ellipses in exactly the same spots.
It’s worth pausing here. Tullis wrote that Lehrer’s story “didn’t need much help from me.” Here’s a spot where Lehrer needed help from Tullis.
A couple of helpful questions Tullis might have asked Lehrer at this point: “Did you get this Darwin quote directly from Darwin or did you get it out of Roughgarden’s book?” and “If we’re relying on Roughgarden to pick quotes from the dead guy she’s arguing with, who else can you interview to make sure we do justice to Darwin’s perspective?”
Roughgarden’s critics, in fact, have too small a voice in the story. Readers get 2,435 words into a 2,728-word story before finally reaching the words “Other biologists think Roughgarden is exaggerating the importance of homosexuality” and a recycled quote from invertebrate zoologist Stephen Shuster. Much higher in the story, Lehrer let Roughgarden characterize her critics with a passing reference to “critiques that, she says, stemmed largely from her being transgendered.”
Indeed, after giving a belated voice to three skeptical scientists, Lehrer doesn’t have Roughgarden answer any of them head-on. Instead, there’s this:
Roughgarden remains defiant. “I think many scientists discount me because of who I am. They assume that I can’t be objective, that I’ve got some bias or hidden LGBT agenda. But I’m just trying to understand the data. At this point, we have thousands of species that deviate from the standard account of Darwinian sexual selection. So we get all these special case exemptions, and we end up downplaying whatever facts don’t fit. The theory is becoming Ptolemaic. It clearly has the trajectory of a hypothesis in trouble.”
In “many scientists discount me because of who I am,” we have something queasily similar to the Turkish astronomer in The Little Prince whose solid work is ignored until he starts dressing like a European. If true, it’s awful, and Lehrer should have gathered and published the evidence.
Here, again, the story that “didn’t need much help from me” could have used some help from Tullis. Absent help from Tullis, this poisonous claim — that modern science stalls because scientists are bigots — just gets to hang in the air.
Elsewhere in the story, Tullis might also have nixed Lehrer’s use of the phrase “biological dogma” unless Lehrer could back it up. As my friend David Dobbs wrote today, “A fortunate scientist, a truly important scientist, is one whose work is foundational or heavily influential for a decade. A few researchers do work that proves indispensable for 25 to 50 years. An extremely select number do work that remains foundation or impetus for a century. And no one, not even Newton, Darwin, or Einstein, have their work go a hundred years without significant revision.”
Though it’s been up on my screen for days at this point, I haven’t made time to really digest the top result that pops up if you Google “roughgarden and lehrer.” It’s called "Bad Science Journalism: The Myth of the Oppressed Underdog." This passage jumped out at me:
It’s amazing science makes any advances at all, with such closed-minded people in control of the field! But that’s not really how things work. The real story is an example of science operating the way it is supposed operate: a researcher comes up with new and very interesting observations that seem to challenge our current understanding of an important problem. She works to put those observations under some sort of theoretical framework, and presents the results in a paper to her scientific peers. Her fellow scientists think the work is interesting, but remain unconvinced because the evidence or theoretical development is not yet sufficient to support the hypothesis.
Beware the underdog narrative in science journalism. This narrative severely misrepresents how science really works.
Speaking of misrepresentation, by the time readers reach the part where Lehrer quotes Roughgarden saying “You will almost never find animals or primates that are exclusively gay,” Lehrer has referred to “all those gay sheep, dolphins and primates,” “gay penguins,” “Lesbian oystercatchers,” and to how “female macaques engage in rampant lesbianism.” That’s sloppy. It confuses readers.
Bottom line: I’m astonished that “Best American Science and Nature Writing” chose to honor Lehrer’s story. I suspect both he and Tullis have both done stronger work. Tullis tweeted about the courage it took to stick his neck out. I wish him the courage to recant.