How Jonah Lehrer Was Able to Perpetrate Fraud in the Current Intellectual Climate

Editor’s note:  Guest blogger, Stanton Peele, takes aim at errant science writing and its outlets.  Stanton may be followed on Twitter at

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling author who specialized in reducing artistic endeavors to neurological events, was an important science writer for Wired and The New Yorker, as well as contributing to such leading publications as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times Magazine.

This matters because these publications have played a critical role in the reductionism that pervades American thinking about mental illness and addiction.  Our leading scientific journals in America have placed the imprimatur of official scientism on reductionism, a endeavor whose seediness is represented perhaps most clearly by Lehrer. But his published lies really reflect the entire enterprise of reductionism in American science.

As I have noted in the Huffington Post, Lehrer became a runaway best-selling author by making outlandish, unscientific, and obtuse assertions about the nature of the relationship between art and creativity, on the one hand, and neuroscience on the other.  This writing amounted essentially to making metaphoric leaps from biographical information (which Lehrer often misstated or made up out of whole cloth) or superficial artistic observations to like-seeming memes in neuroscience (e.g., great novelists describe changes people undergo, we can generate new neurons = miracle association between art, biology, and science).

Lehrer’s personal fate is now of little interest, since, his fabrications and lying revealed, he was fired immediately from his staff position at The New Yorker and his publisher ceased shipment of his runaway best-seller, Imagine: How Creativity Works.  But the implications of Lehrer’s intellectual dishonesty and pandering go far beyond his making up quotes, his systematic inaccuracies, and his lies in order to cover these up.  Rather, they go to the heart of recent brain science and its massive incomprehension of what psychological science comprises.

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Ruminating over the crack era landscape of Oakland, California, scholar Mike Davis noted with passing interest what appeared to be a new phenomenon in his 1990 work, City of QuartzIn past years, Davis commented, aggressive law-and-order demands were “dismissed as the venom of white backlash.”  In the crack era, however, a new and unprecedented “Black-lash” emerged.  According to Davis this represented a “qualitatively new and disturbing dimension of the war on the underclass” manifested by “the swelling support of Black leadership” for draconian criminal justice responses to the crack problem.  Before moving on to other matters of interest, Davis made one more observation which proved prophetic: “The trend is national.”

In Los Angeles, the influential South Central Organizing Committee (SCOC)—a church supported affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)—became a major voice calling for greater police deployment against drugs and street youth.  In New York, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) held countless marches, protests, and vigils to demand police initiatives like Operation Pressure Point and the Tactical Narcotics Team (TNT) as well as harsher sentencing.  The Reverend Wendell Foster, a member of the city council, co-founded the United Black Church Appeal (UBCA) with his celebrity friends Dick Gregory and Ossie Davis to aid in the crusade against crack.  A virtual chorus line of traditional liberal, pro-black voices formed to demand more police and harsher sentencing in order to “take back” their streets from pushers and users.  The NWBCCC, in fact, called their campaign against crack in their communities the “take back our streets” campaign for a time.

Mandatory Minimums are not what Tommie Smith and John Carlos had in mind.

What surprised Davis, and what should surprise any critical observer is the absence of dissenting opinion.  In her work The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander laments that groups like the ACLU and NAACP virtually ignored the move towards incarceration under crack era reform in favor of issues more pertinent to black middle class interests, such as affirmative action.  This however, is only part of the problem.  The crack era environs of what Davis dubs “Black-lash” also unleashed the fury of prominent minority leaders who typically opposed law-and-order solutions.  For example, Congresswoman Maxine Waters—now well known for her attacks on law enforcement—endorsed police sweeps and “street terrorism” laws designed to crackdown on drug-related crime.  Black Power advocate Harry Edwards, organizer of the famous 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights told the San Francisco Focus, “I’m for locking ‘em up, getting ‘em off the street, put ‘em behind bars.”  Edwards added further detail on his designs for sentencing: “As long as the law will allow, try to make it as long as possible.”

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