When I pretend to believe other people’s lies

Does that make me a liar?


Lies, white lies and Dylan lies

Sorry, I couldn’t resist a second post. In the news pieces regarding the Lehrer “situation” and respective comment sections people have been wondering: if Jonah was going to put his reputation on the line, why would he do it for something like some pretty innocuous Dylan quotes? Like journalist Stuart Kelly puts it: “Although one could speculate endlessly about why Lehrer felt the need to invent the quotation (it doesn’t even add that much to his argument), the more pressing question is why he believed he might get away with it.”

I’m afraid you’ve got it backwards, Stuart. It’s precisely because what he added is nothing special and doesn’t alter our view of Bob Dylan in any respect, that Jonah (probably) thought it wasn’t that important. Well, it’s obviously important for those who make their goal in life to recite every word the songwriter has ever uttered – and they probably were excited by the proposition of some Dylan sayings in mint condition – but apart from them, not really. I don’t think he would have fabricated the results of a scientific study or something of consequence.

Somehow he got tricked – probably under great pressure – into thinking that that kind of lie wasn’t too bad. The problem is, the mindset with which the public perceives that same fact is completely detached from the lie in itself. It’s the act of deception, coming from a reputed journalist and famous science writer that pierces us. Advertisers lie, journalists don’t. We only care about advertisers lies if they hurt us. We always care about journalists lies even if the fabrication is of no consequence.

We need to trust this bearer of truth – and what does that say about us? Probably that the more we trust the professional, the more sparsely we use our own judgement and critical reasoning. But that’s part of the evolutionary package that allows us to take mental shortcuts and make fast decisions. And I’m running off topic.

The ironic thing is, now that he’s been caught lying, Jonah will probably be one of the most thorough and honest journalists out there. But since people see him as a liar – as opposed to a regular human being who’s been caught lying – they probably won’t believe him anyway. Well, since he can no longer get away with it (there’s now a small legion of fact checkers ready to disprove his every word) I certainly will.

“Everybody lies”

So Jonah Lehrer lied. He went and made up some Dylan quotes.

I honestly don’t care – at least not in the his life is over, he’ll never be paid to write ever again kind of “caring” that most people are engaging in. Because:

1) I’m THAT biased (I met his writings through Proust is a Neuroscientist and have craved them – not the madeleines, though – ever since; he’s also pretty cute).

2) He was one of the authors that helped me start chasing the subject of human behaviour and neuroscience and I’ll always be thankful for that.

3) I love pop science. I’ll even make a t-shirt one day. Science is not for the illuminated few. Science is for the public and it should be translated into a discourse that most people will understand and, yes, enjoy. Does that mean oversimplifying some things? Well, did you start learning Maths by solving second degree equations? Those that use Jonah’s error to accuse pop science of doing more damage than good are just being narcissistic elitists. Sorry, I can’t lie about that.

That said, I’m sad. I expect more from someone who I came to admire so much. But hey, if like me you saw your House, you know: everyone does it. Even your idols. After all, they’re as human as you. And you’ve lied too. House knows it. I know it. I sure have.