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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Comments
20 comments so far

Dylan once wrote in a letter to me that I destroyed…

“Someday, some guy is going to make a lot of stuff up, and twist around a bunch of quotes, and then a bunch of jealous 2nd-raters are going to pile on when he gets caught. But he’ll already have cashed all the checks and be saying, ‘Kiss my a$$, you whiny intellectual beeches! All that really counts is the benjamins! [sic]‘”

—Bob Dylan

Posted by CrashB | Report as abusive

Jonah Lehrer didn’t give a TEDTalk. As you admit in the postscript of a piece in which you complain about speakers who look for emotional payoffs at the expense of facts, while telling the story the story of a guy who wrote a piece around facts that should have existed but didn’t.
Well done!

Posted by emilyatted | Report as abusive

Well done CrashB. You obviously have a fine insight into neurology

Posted by Christofurio | Report as abusive

well, okay, Lehrer has never spoken at TED but he’s spoken at PopTech. He does fit the profile.

Posted by idle7 | Report as abusive

Are journalists really so much more scrupulous?

Here’s some evidence that they might not be, and that Lehrer-esque “quotation” is not uncommon among them: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p= 4110

And that’s in print. Even if TED were to temper its gee whiz tectopianism (please!), it’s still primarily selling speeches, and speeches have their limits. Or our poor monkey brains do, as any number of TED talks will be happy to tell you.

Posted by Ivanonymous | Report as abusive

Despite the narrative fallacy hazards of the TED format, it is a good to see more people taking an interest in science and new ideas.

Posted by XenoPhundibulum | Report as abusive

>>Well done CrashB. You obviously have a fine insight into neurology>>

Thank you. I am an expert in that field, where I can tell a person’s qualities by the shape of their head. For example, I can also tell, from the bio pic at the top of this article, that the writer is prone to deep insecurities about the size of his stud prong. Also, that if he ever tried using a power tool, he’d cut off most of his own fingers.

Posted by CrashB | Report as abusive

I didn’t know much about TED until I saw a piece on autism by Ami Klin, which had all the problems you described. My suggestion, in this blogpost, was that TED could clean up its act if they had a dual system. http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/c ommunicating-science-in-age-of.htm
I argue that TED talks should be accompanied by a document that gives references to support what they are saying . 95% of viewers won’t look at it, but it will allow the remaining 5% to assess the credibility of the speaker, and it may give some speakers pause before they go off into flights of fantasy.

Posted by deevybee | Report as abusive

Funny .. sounds like Socrates vs the Sophists all over again, in our time!

Posted by Twundit | Report as abusive

There is something else here. What do we consider to be a real book as opposed to a book manufactured to be bought as a holiday gift, or to get corporate lectures?

A real book represents a way of knowing and existing: A person with a point of view is interested in something and wishes to understand it more deeply. From this own point of view, they research it, think about it, and come to conclusions. They then present their findings in a book, a medium that communicates with other persons who invest the time to read it, to follow the presentation and argument, and reach or not reach the same conclusions from their own points of view.

My thoughts are on my blog at CreativityDiscourse dot com.

- John Lobell

Posted by JohnLobell | Report as abusive

Eheheh, if TED was more demanding, Al Gore could not have his presentation on global warming

Posted by ccz | Report as abusive

Hmm. You are a journalist. In theory you are supposed to get your facts right. Your whole column is about how Jonah Lehrer is a creature of TED, yet he’s never given a speech there. And you assert that few science journalists ever speak, when dozens have over the years. On the one hand you say that TED popularizing science is a bad thing; one the other you complain that those who do that for a living aren’t invited. You excoriate TED: “these talks are far removed from any culture of journalistic ethics,” yet your whole column is constructed on a falsehood, which you later defend as unimportant, because the rhetoric is right, because he is a creature of TED. I’ve been a member of the TED community for some time, and, while imperfect, again and again TED has drawn attention to serious science, engineering breakthroughs and obscure intellectuals who never would have had a chance of getting their story out without the conference. That doesn’t seem dangerous to me, as anyone even remotely interested in one of the talks can Google that person and find as much information as they wish. A Ted talk it seems to me serves as an introduction to new ideas and new people. I can’t imagine the organization would assert that the speakers tell you everything about their long corpus of work in one 18 minute talk. But does that mean they should never give a short talk unless it comes with an hour of footnotes? They prepare people for a talk, not conspiratorially twist their facts to create falsehood. Finally if TED is so anti-intellectual and anti-science, then it’s pretty mystifying if you look at the hardcore brainiacs we get to see. I don’t think it’s fair to drag TED into the whole Jonah Lehrer mess either. There are a lot of things you can criticize TED about, but this column serves as a poor effort at doing so.

Posted by WeatherGirls | Report as abusive

Intellectual luxury goods retailer.

Posted by dsquared | Report as abusive

I made the following comment to the public radio discussion which was slavish going over the ethics of this for an hour:

“The real problem here isn’t some incident of lying. Lying happens all the time, some people are dishonest, journalists as often as anyone else.

The real problem here is the little cult of intellectual celebrity journalists and the mostly New York intelligentsia like to build up. It is too infatuated with a clever turn of phrase or a shocking anecdote, and not nearly interested enough in hard data (because frankly hard data is often very boring to read/understand). So you end up with people like Steven Dubner, or Malcom Gladwell, or Jonah Lehrer dominating the “intellectual” discussion in the country. This is despite the fact that they themselves, while extremely bright, frequently don’t know what they are talking about!

When I first started reading Gladwell I really enjoyed what he wrote, it was well written, fresh, had some new ideas, and most of all was interesting/entertaining. Unfortunately, as I found more of his work I quickly found that the more I knew about a subject the less I liked the piece. On subjects I knew a bit about he seemed shallow and superficial. On the subjects I really knew well many came across as outright misrepresentations of the current state of the field in the sake of a memorable anecdote and some marketable talking point.

People love to decry the news/journalism an how it has become “infotainment” more interested in eyeballs than substance. I think that is what Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer and Steven Dubner in part represent about the intellectual climate of this country. It has become “intellectutainment”. It is not surprising that people who spend so much time crafting a riveting narrative would cut corners with the truth here and there. If they were more slavishly devoted to the truth they would be doing research themselves. Anyway when one of these “meme marketers” who gets paid $50,000 a speaking engagement actually does go up against one of the legitimately brilliant people in our society (see Pinker vs Gladwell), you quickly find out who is bringing the real intellectual guns to the fight and who is sporting water pistols.”

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

Weathergirls-

I think the more intellectually rigorous among us would be happier if the intellectual climate of the country was more driven by 18 minute lectures that focused on data and analysis (even just at an summary level). There is a lot of room between what TED does now and a boring speech at a conference. Instead we get a lot of hucksterism and gee-golly-ain’t-that-sweet-stories-about people’s-grand-kids. Heck a lot of the soft science speakers are flat out unwatchable they are so out in the land of make believe.

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

QCIC,

Check out the science tab on TED.com. There are dozens of hard-core data and analysis talks. You’re making gross generalizations without acknowledging their existence. And please feel free to cite an example of make believe. And both part of this sentence are flat out wrong. “Instead we get a lot of hucksterism and gee-golly-ain’t-that-sweet-stories-abo ut people’s-grand-kids.” Once again, please show. I don’t recall any grandkids talks nor more than a rare over-assertive pitch, which I don’t believe make the site. That’s why it’s so rare that CEOs of corporations speak, thank goodness.

Posted by WeatherGirls | Report as abusive

QCIC,

Check out the science tab on TED.com. There are dozens of hard-core data and analysis talks. You’re making gross generalizations without acknowledging their existence. And please feel free to cite an example of make believe. And both part of this sentence are flat out wrong. “Instead we get a lot of hucksterism and gee-golly-ain’t-that-sweet-stories-abo ut people’s-grand-kids.” Once again, please show. I don’t recall any grandkids talks nor more than a rare over-assertive pitch, which I don’t believe make the site. That’s why it’s so rare that CEOs of corporations speak, thank goodness.

Posted by WeatherGirls | Report as abusive

QCIC,

Check out the science tab on TED.com. There are dozens of hard-core data and analysis talks. You’re making gross generalizations without acknowledging their existence. And please feel free to cite an example of make believe. And both part of this sentence are flat out wrong. “Instead we get a lot of hucksterism and gee-golly-ain’t-that-sweet-stories-abo ut people’s-grand-kids.” Once again, please show. I don’t recall any grandkids talks nor more than a rare over-assertive pitch, which I don’t believe make the site. That’s why it’s so rare that CEOs of corporations speak, thank goodness.

Posted by WeatherGirls | Report as abusive

I find it tough to blame this trend on TED. The whole “narrative over substance” trend in journalism pre-dates TED by decades and can be seen in many places. Just look at what’s been going on with TV investigative journalism – everything from 60 Minutes to local investigative reporters – for over 30 years: find a story, build a narrative, get some interviews with the “good guys” and “bad guys” – selectively edited if necessary – and tie it all together with an emotional story about an example “victim”. If someone can cry, even better. If the “bad guys”, after realizing that they’ll be cast in a bad light no matter what they say, decide to issue a terse “no comment” when walking by the camera, that’s better still.

This trend is visible in print media as well. Every story needs an example to illustrate a broad statistical point, which starts to losing meaning when considering that one can always find some example to illustrate any point (things are great, things are horrible, things are mediocre) in a country as large as the U.S. Over time, standards have migrated to where these sorts of anecdotal examples are used as the basis for stories on alleged “trends” even by relatively respected publications like the NY Times and Washington Post. Jack Shafer, both at Reuters and going back to his days at Slate, has done a good job of skewering these “bogus trend” stories.

The need to find this “perfect story”, a factual person or event with a narrative as entertaining as well-written fiction, has been a feature of many journalistic fabrication scandals, going back to Janet Cooke’s (fictional) 8-year old heroin addict in 1980 through Stephen Glass and others.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

Felix:

You write: “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…”

… but you seemingly don’t realize that the last TED Book “Deep Water,” which was released just last week, is a science book (the journey to discover the rate of polar ice melt) by a science journalist (Daniel Grossman, of National Geographic, BBC, Weekend Edition, The World, etc.).

And then you decry the lack of ‘intellectual rigor’ at TED and other conferences. Perhaps you may want to begin examining that issue a little closer to your own desk.

Posted by Bostonma | Report as abusive
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