Lies, damned lies, statistics and… quotations
“It’s a hard thing to describe… It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”
This is the story of how Jonah Lehrer, pop psychology guru and author of three bestselling books, came to make up and fiddle Bob Dylan quotes in order to bring to life the creative processes described in his new book. Unfortunately for Lehrer, he was eventually found out by a Bob Dylan expert called Michael C. Moynihan, who, upon recognising something untoward, chased said author until he finally caved in and owned up to the accusations aimed at him.
Although Lehrer had already been castigated by some for regurgitating his work in different articles, on this occasion it was the final straw for many who were working with him. His book was withdrawn by the publishers, he walked away from his column in The New Yorker, and his reputation as the rising star of popular neuroscience and the bright new face on the lecture circuit was abruptly tarnished.
To Lehrer’s credit, he apologised unreservedly for his mistakes and wasn’t shy about using the term ‘lie’ to describe his actions. This is more than can be said for others in similar positions. As Nick Cohen intimated recently in the Observer, Lehrer seems very tame in relation to other authors who frequently plagiarise and respond with not a small amount of venom against those who throw accusations against them.
Indeed, it is important to bear in mind that Lehrer is far from alone in misusing quotes. Not long ago, it was found that Johan Hari, a rising star in the Independent, was doing pretty much the same thing. And only very recently a biography of Ryzard Kapuscinski, the world renowned travel writer, indicated that he may have been frequently playing hard and loose with the truth in his famed accounts of daily life and political intrigue in Africa and elsewhere.
Yet this phenomenon doesn’t stop at high-profile authors and journalists. Quotes seem to be routinely misused in everyday pieces of writing, from newspaper articles to, dare I say it, think-tank publications. It is not that quotes are fully fabricated – this rarely happens. Rather it is that they are often lazily misinterpreted (see Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” for a classic example) or tell us nothing of value (I’m no doubt guilty of this myself). Moreover, sometimes it is as though anyone could have come up with the written musing, so it’s a wonder why we choose to cite the famous person.
That the problem of misquoting goes beyond a handful of opportunistic journalists and writers leads me to believe that the cause of the issue lies as much in demand as it does in supply. In short, part of the reason why so many badly used quotes exist is because the authors of blogs, articles and books struggle to satisfy the large appetite from readers for soundbites of wisdom. We yearn to hear of quotes, just as we hanker after easily digestible facts. Forget trying to get a handle on the complexity of an issue; just tell us something said by a higher guru or familiar face and we’ll believe it.
This gets us into a deeper issue about the dangers of looking up to the likes of politicians and famous people for guidance in our lives, many of whom do not even want to be held in that lofty position. What is ironic about Lehrer’s misquoting of Bob Dylan is that he is somebody who is misinterpreted constantly by those who want him to be something he is not. Witness how people reacted angrily when this supposedly once active political campaigner agreed to play in China amidst the furore over Ai Weiwei’s treatment. Yet as Charles Shaar Murray and others routinely point out, Bob Dylan was never the revolutionary idol people wanted him to be.
So to return to Lehrer and all the others who have been highly resourceful with their use of quotes, as much as we might want to scold them for taking us all for a ride, it is often we who are the back seat passengers asking them to give it more gas. This doesn’t make blatant fabrication excusable, but it does make it somewhat understandable.