As a journalist who frequently writes about psychology and brain science, my interests have frequently converged with those of Jonah Lehrer. Indeed, our paths crossed a couple of times. He once picked up one of my blog posts and (giving me full credit) wrote about it in his wired.com blog. Another time, he politely turned down my request for an interview. Sure, he was coming to Santa Barbara to give a lecture, but his schedule was so tight it allowed no time for talking.
In retrospect, I’m wondering if that response helps explain his depressing fall into disgrace. We now know that Lehrer, in his best-selling books about neuroscience, cut corners and made up quotes. The arrogance of someone who got very successful at a very young age? Perhaps. But my suspicion is the answer is more banal: He didn’t have enough time to do his work properly.
Churning out countless blog posts, articles and books, Lehrer was something of a machine. I often marveled at the quality and quantity of his work. In my experience, writing about psychology and the brain tends to be slow, painstaking work. The human mind is complicated; results of even the most startling research tend to be nuanced. Conveying the essence of a study in understandable, relatable language, without oversimplifying it or overstating its importance, takes time and patience. I wondered how Lehrer could possibly be so prolific.
Now, I wonder what demons were driving him, particularly after he achieved so much success. Couldn’t he have pushed back the deadline of his most recent book for a year, giving him time to get it right? Sure, the publisher wanted it ASAP, but why couldn’t he tell them, sorry, it’s not done yet? What is it that compels someone so brilliant and talented to feel the need to produce more and more and more, to the point where he needs to make ethical compromises just to keep running in place?
If there’s an answer to that question, it will have to come from brain science. Unfortunately, unless he can somehow resurrect his credibility, and with it his career, Jonah Lehrer won’t be available to help explain it to us.