Jonah Lehrer, TED, and the narrative dark arts

By Felix Salmon
August 3, 2012
Evgeny Morozov's hilarious and masterful dismantling of Parag Khanna in particular and the whole TED mindset in general.

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One of the most interesting takes on l’affaire Jonah Lehrer comes in a book review which was almost certainly written before any of the latest revelations: Evgeny Morozov’s hilarious and masterful dismantling of Parag Khanna in particular and the whole TED mindset in general. Whatever else you do this weekend, make sure to read it: you won’t be sorry. But this part is directly relevant to Lehrer:

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

The TED “ecosystem” — the scare quotes are unavoidable — has what Nathan Heller, in his New Yorker profile, called a “closely governed editorial process”:

The conference’s “curators” feel out a speaker’s interests, looking for material that’s new and counterintuitive. They think about form. A TED talk tends to follow one of several narrative arcs (some have three acts, others are cast as detective stories, others are polemics)…

The real work of the curators, though, often comes down to emotional shading. When Cain first drafted her talk, it was thick with statistics and case-making data. Looking at other TED lectures, though, she decided to replace some of her data points with stories—an inclination that the conference’s curators pushed even further. A moving narrative about her grandfather’s bookish introversion now concluded the lecture. “I’ve had to stifle my appetite for nuance,” she said, about the lost statistics.

One of the less-remarked aspects of TED is that although it popularizes science, it features very few of the people whose job it is to popularize science: science journalists. Although the beneficient spirit of Malcom Gladwell hovers invisibly over most of the proceedings, these talks are far removed from any culture of journalistic ethics. The scientists don’t consider what they do at TED to be science, and the ones who make it onto the TED Talks site are the ones most willing to let TED’s curators guide them to a trite and facile narrative nirvana. They often don’t need much guiding, these days: the TED formula, perfectly celebrated/skewered here, is at this point ingrained in the mind of almost anybody who wants to give a talk there.

And here’s the thing: for all that Jonah Lehrer ultimately wound up blogging for the New Yorker, he has always been a creature of TED much more than he has been a creature of journalism.* Check out Seth Mnookin’s post, today, on Jonah Lehrer’s missing compass: the way that Lehrer remixed facts in service of narrative is very TED. Mnookin says that Lehrer had “the arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater”. A journalist would call that arrogance — would call it, indeed, the action of a man with no moral compass. On the other hand, a TED curator, or a monologuist, might see things very differently.

Which is something that Morozov doesn’t touch on in his review: that TED-think isn’t merely vapid, it’s downright dangerous in the way that it devalues intellectual rigor at the expense of tricksy emotional and narrative devices. TED is a hugely successful franchise; its stars, like Jonah Lehrer, are going to continue to percolate into the world of journalism. And when they get there, they’ll be deeply versed in the dark arts of manipulating facts in order to create something perfectly self-contained and compelling. Does any editor out there want to take it upon herself to try to unteach such arts, when bringing on a hot new star? I didn’t think so.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. TED isn’t going away: indeed, it’s so successful that it is spawning dozens of competitors, even as many publications, including the New Yorker as well as Wired, the NYT Magazine, the Atlantic, and many others, move aggressively into the “ideas” space. The cross-pollination between the conferences and the publications will continue, as will everybody’s desire to draw as big an audience as possible. Which says to me that Jonah Lehrer will not be the last person to trip up in this manner. In fact, he might turn out to be one of the first.

*Update: Clay Shirky informs me that Jonah Lehrer has never actually given a TED talk.

Update 2: A lot of people seem to think that it matters, for the purposes of this post, whether Lehrer has actually given a talk at TED (as opposed to PopTech, where he has spoken, or any of the other TED clones out there). Certainly the post would be a bit more elegant if Lehrer had been a genuine TED star, with millions of views for his TED talk. But I absolutely stand by my assertion that he’s a creature of TED, and that his writing is decidedly TED-esque in its prioritization of narratives over niceties.

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