Vivek Haldar

Jonah Lehrer

A recent review of Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine, delves into how even a science writer as skilled and technically trained as Lehrer can fall into the trap of letting the narrative run over the science. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book.)

If dubious interpretations of scientific data appeared only once in Imagine, it might be a worrisome fluke; but they appear multiple times, which is cause for real concern. Lehrer steps over the line again when connecting amphetamine use to creativity. He states that “Because the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are excited…the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” Such definitive statements imply that neuroscience has already charted a causal course from neurotransmitter chemistry to a complex cognitive process — which simply isn’t true. That it should have come from a writer who so clearly has the ability to write about science critically and intelligently still comes as a bit of a surprise.

We need good translators of science to the general public, and Lehrer has the public’s ear and the public’s trust. He is at his best when putting his considerable talents to the task of telling a story that is true according to the facts as we know them, rather than telling a story people want to hear.

Lehrer actually studied neuroscience in grad school and is fully capable of grasping the technical nuances of the research in the field. This is why practicing scientists shy away from writing “popular science”. They are scared of giving up the fine chisel of the lab for the broad strokes of prose.