One of my fonder memories of Oberlin College was taking a really tough neuroscience class in my junior year. It was an intermediate level course that I had no business taking without organic chemistry and research methods and suchlike; I’m not even sure how I managed to get in. Despite its reputation as a place where the disaffected queer stoner second sons of not-that-rich Upper West Side professionals did independent majors in environmental gender veganism, Oberlin had a formidable undergraduate neuroscience program, and the courses were very hard. And interesting!
While not an intro course, it was technically open to non-majors (cf. me), and the usual lunatic sociologists and anthro kids in need of hard science creds gravitated to it. Although I was an English major, I’d been a big science nerd in high school, and I knew enough to know that I didn’t know shit about shit, so I sat halfway back and kept my mouth shut. Budding sociologists have no such sense or compunction, and they were forever interrupting the lecture on cell receptors or whatever in order to make wild extrapolations about human behavior and what one—I wish I could remember his name; I remember that he was shorter than me, and we may have made out one time at a Soccer House party—invariably referred to as “Society At Large.”
This was more than ten years ago, and perhaps in the intervening years the state of the art has advanced and propounded a psychohistorical theory of the mind, but I rather doubt it. The giddy extrapolations of popsci writers from Brooks to Gladwell are so deliriously just-so, and the idea that the evolved architecture of the human mind has something to say about whether a human becomes a Democrat or a Republican so completely bonkers . . . Well. A dog evolved to be a remarkable omnivore, but it eats shit because she’s hungry and the shit is there, if you know what I mean. When a writer comes bearing a PET scan and a bill of particulars, you have the right to remain skeptical. It is probably a con.
I don’t know that I ever read any of Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker pieces, but I did read Proust Was a Neuroscientist. You will not be shocked to learn that Proust was not, in fact, a neuroscientist. Proust was an astute observer of human behavior and a meticulous reporter of human sentiment. Somewhat later, some scientists described some natural, physical phenomena which may partially give rise to certain behaviors and sentiments. Lehrer, like a good popscicle, proposes that Proust’s observations somehow pre-post-retroactively anticipated the discoveries of modern neuroscience. You see the logical fallacy. It’s like claiming that Hebrews 11:12 anticipated the Hubble Deep Field.
What does neuroscience have to say about the fact that it was fake Bob Dylan quotations and a habit of cribbing from his own work that got Lehrer marked as a fraud rather than the fact that his writing was total bullshit? His books and their theses were fabricated, and through them he became a public intellectual. Then he lazily rehashed some blog posts and misattributed some guidance-counselor pabulum about creativity to Bob Dylan, and for that you’re upset about his still commanding $20K speaker fees? Listen, for $20K, I would be happy to tell you that “our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason and the precise mix depends on the situation.” Hush, girl. You don’t say.
I am in danger of violating my own best dictum here: never begrudge another man his successful scam. Lehrer and I are nearly exact contemporaries. While he was constructing this elaborate and profitable ruse, I was being a Cool Kid and going to openings and hanging out late and putting off finishing my novel. Now, even disgraced, he commands a single speaker fee that’s bigger than my whole advance! (Dear WW Norton et al., I am not complaining. Love, Jacob.) This is because America prefers a fiction that purports to be true rather than truth expressed via fiction; it is why Proust Was a Neuroscientist is more palatable than Proust. And Lehrer is certainly very smart, smart enough to understand the profit potential in a well-coordinated campaign of public semi-abasement. Y’all are just jealous that he got there first.
Journalism—the neologism-profession that Leherer stands accused of mispracticing—is one of those items of modern life that’s always more sinned against than sinning, and that oughta tell you something. Its arcane professional conventions have the malleable orthodoxy of a child’s game, both infinitely changeable and totally inviolable, lest someone or other throw himself into the wood chips and start bawling. Lehrer was a lousy writer, and that merited success and accolades, but when it was discovered that he was unprofessional, the collective moral conniption commenced. What does that tell you?
Jacob Bacharach’s next book, entitled Physician, Heal Thyself, examines how the words of Jesus Christ anticipated some of today’s most challenging medical and public policy problems.