Lies, damned lies, statistics and… quotations

August 24, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

“It’s a hard thing to describe… It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”

These are not my words. Nor are they those of Bob Dylan. Rather, they are fabricated words strung together by Jonah Lehrer in his new book, Imagine.

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 His book was withdrawn by the publishers, he walked away from his column in The New Yorker, and his reputation as the rising star of popular neuroscience and the bright new face on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.

Protecting Science from Scientism

January 31, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Some extracts I have recently enjoyed, about protecting science from scientism:


“That is the problem about turning secular materialist atheism into a political ideology, as Richard Dawkins and others have done. When you turn Skepticism into a political mass movement, the dogma is what gives the movement its coherence, like a marching band keeping soldiers in step. God forbid anyone who walks out of line. But is that how science has ever progressed? By an orderly march of believers? Isn’t it precisely the mavericks, those out of step with the dominant beat, who reveal new worlds to us?” -Jules Evans


“We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life. And we certainly can’t go on pretending to believe that our own experience – the source of all our thought – is just an illusion, which it would have to be if that dead, alien stuff were indeed the only reality.”

-Mary Midgley


“Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than minority of them – never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?” - C.S Lewis.


Perhaps it is not fair to ask more of science.  To borrow the words of Merleau-Ponty, the strength of science may lie precisely in the act that it gives up living among things, preferring to manipulate them instead- Francisco Varela


” (Subjectivity) is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” Marilyn Osborne


“There’s a certain kind of scepticism that can’t bear uncertainty.” - Rupert Sheldrake


The Hope of Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

December 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Obituary writers must be busy at the moment. I wanted to speak for the man in the middle of a recent obituary ‘sandwich’, caught between atheist icon and global intellectual Christopher Hitchens and North Korea’s great leader, Kim Jong-Il who was immortalised by his puppet caricature in Team America.

The former Czech President and playright Vaclav Havel died at the age of 75. He was President of Czechoslavakia from 1989-1992, and remained as President of the Czech Republic after the sweetly named velvet revolution for another ten years.

I didn’t know his life well, but he always felt like some sort of hero to me, somebody I wanted to know better. I became particularly intrigued by him after reading the following quotation:

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

You have to have lived a bit to be able to say something like that and sound like you mean it.

More generally, it would be lovely, in principle at least, to have a political leader with a deep sensitivity to the existential and narrative currents of human lives and who spoke about them regularly, eloquently and passionately. It certainly beats talking about interest rates and austerity.

It would be lovely to have a political leader with a deep sensitivity to the existential and narrative currents of human lives and who spoke about them regularly, eloquently and passionately. It certainly beats talking about interest rates and austerity.

Personally I would struggle not to vote for somebody who shared thoughts like the following:

“I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.”

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”

“Modern man must descend the spiral of his own absurdity to the lowest point; only then can he look beyond it. It is obviously impossible to get around it, jump over it, or simply avoid it.”

“Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren’t in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life.”

“The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.”

“There’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side.”

“When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.”

“Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Vaclav Havel RIP.