So about a month ago somebody lied in nonfiction again. That’s not a big deal, writers are all liars anyway, but it was how Jonah Lehrer lied that was the funny part, the weird part, the incoming existential crisis part, and it was that he made up a quote from Bob Dylan. More accurately, he doctored them like ransom letters, cutting and pasting until he was able to get Dylan to say things that he could have said but weren’t what he actually said, nor were they what he really meant. This has devastated his career (it’s not his first lie—he’s been slapped on the wrist for plagiarizing from his own blog before) because let’s face it, he lied, but this somehow goes beyond the extended exaggeration of James Frey, precisely because the lie is so small and so specific.
I can understand the concept behind making his life sound larger than life because his craft wasn’t strong enough to prop it up, but what was the point of making Bob Dylan say:
“It’s a hard thing to describe,” Bob Dylan once mused about the creative process. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”
Which he didn’t actually. However, for Lehrer’s book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, that sentence is very helpful indeed, as it is an important step in his thesis of how neuroscience can explain creative genius. Neuroscience is rapidly becoming the most dangerous word in the world, and I am beginning to regard it with a kind of fear because despite being a real science, an alarming number of TED talks and popular science books are running with the basic premise of neuroscience—that we can understand behavior by understanding the brain—to the furthest reaches of the stars and far beyond all existing scientific theory. Lehrer’s theory that creativity is enhanced when people are relaxed sounds too obvious to be argued and lacks the solid scientific backing to be interesting, but more than that, his entire depiction of Dlyan is built on a jenga tower of lies, and to watch a review remove one block after the next is to be overwhelmed with the magnitude of its hollowness.
Lehrer has crossed the line from bullshit into straight up lying, though in another sense maybe the only crime he’s committed is lying when we didn’t expect it. Cherry picking facts and willfully denying reality is something we expect from our current political discourse, yet there’s something that deeply chills me about not just the shallowness of Lehrer’s points but the care with which he crafted them, and the dedication with which he clung to his lies. Normally we expect to be lied to for political gain, but I’m still not sure what was at stake for him. What profit is there in lying to say something shallow and untrue about the way we think?