April 20, 2024

The neuroscience of journalistic standards

Hi there,

I feel twinges of conscience when writing about bioethical skulduggery. How well do I stack up? There is such a thing as journalistic ethics — believe it or not. It can be hard to walk the line between rewriting and plagiarism or between an informed precis and biased misrepresentation. Although I hope we at BioEdge behave honourably, such misgivings make me reluctant to cast stones.

However, this week’s scandal in journalism does invite comment and speculation. Jonah Lehrer, once a Rhodes Scholar and now a 31-year-old writer, has had a stellar career as the author of three best-sellers, all related to neuroscience: Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2007), How We Decide (2009), and Imagine: How Creativity Works (2012). Earlier this year he joined the prestigious magazine The New Yorker as a staff writer.

Unfortunately, especially for a writer with an interest in the neuroscience of creativity, Mr Lehrer appears to have suffered from a creativity deficit as well as self-destructive carelessness. Instances of minor plagiarism at various publications were forgiven as the errors of tyro. But finally a Bob Dylan fan discovered that a number of quotes about the singer in the book Imagine had been fabricated, conflated or could not be sourced.

Compared to the outright lies spouted in politics and finance, you might say that this is no big deal. But there are conventions in journalism and Mr Lehrer broke them. Applause and fame are glittering temptations for young writers. What is interesting about Mr Lehrer’s disgrace is his specialty. The brain fascinates all of us. There seems to be no end of stories in the media about the neuroscience of politics, crime, art, child behaviour, romance, chocolate and so on. A savage critic, the British writer Raymond Tallis, has damned this pop science as “neurotrash”.

That seems a bit harsh, but the Lehrer story does suggest that we the public are very gullible when offered explanation based on brain scans. Why is that? Any suggestions?

Michael Cook
Some IVF patients are being offered risky, unsafe techniques which have not been developed ethically and which offer dubious benefits, according to an extraordinary article in Reproductive BioMedicine Online.