Perhaps you read my latest popular-science book, Colons: How the New Science of Punctuation Is Changing Our Book Titles. I intended it to change the conversation about how we have conversations. I showed how evolutionary fight-or-flight reactions — that ineffably mammalian moment of confusion and hesitation — led to the semicolon. It was well received, and once we had a blurb that compared it to Malcolm Gladwell, they printed another 100,000 copies. There was even talk of a movie, with Al Pacino playing the exclamation point, and Gérard Depardieu as the accent grave.
A few weeks ago I got a call from a journalist asking about some of the quotes. In the chapter “From Borges to Borge; or, What Does a Comma Sound Like in Spanish?” I’d profiled an Argentinian man who made a clicking sound every time he encountered a comma when reading out loud.
“A comma fills the empty space between things click!” he said, “and it is in man’s nature to abhor a vacuum click! particularly if the wife is running it when you’re trying to sleep.”
The journalist pointed out that the line turned up in a 1974 Mad magazine article, and I felt a brief spasm of panic. I’d never been to Argentina. In fact I’d made up everything in the book. After the success of my first popular-science book, Lassie Was a Geologist: Absurd Assertions and the New Science of Book Marketing, I’d been under pressure to produce another book within two years; plagiarism and a haphazard parade of claptrap seemed my only option.
The more he pressed, the more I knew the jig was up, and I confessed. Everything I wrote was a lie. Except for that profile of Lillian Hellman.
Note: I made all that up. Don’t you feel sorry for me? Don’t you wonder where I went wrong?
After all, I’m just like Jonah Lehrer, disgraced New Yorker science scribe, except he actually did make things up, and I just made things up about making things up. Lehrer wrote a book called Imagine, a disquisition on the neurological origins of creativity. He made the mistake of inventing Bob Dylan quotes, and since there are people who have memorized every cryptic utterance from Dylan — which is a little like sculpting with oatmeal — Lehrer was found out. The hunt for fibs and plagiarism began. If you’ve ever seen a nature documentary where insects flense a dead beast down to white bone, you know what the Internet can do. Lehrer quit his New Yorker post, apologized, and went into the deep dark woods where the shades of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair float in eternal disgrace.
People are sad. So much talent, so much promise! Also, he was one of the good guys: In 2008 Lehrer wrote about Mitt Romney’s “cognitive dissonance” in a pop-psych blog post where he likened Mitt to an apocalyptic cult leader. If he hadn’t fallen hard and fast, perhaps he would have proved that conservative brains operate from leftover Neanderthal DNA, and process gay marriage in terms of a rampaging woolly mammoth on fire, or resist change because buried evolutionary memories associate it with the pain they felt when their knuckles dragged the ground.
In other words, it’s the trendy science that lofted him up, and hence his supporters’ dismay: He was one of those clever writers who gather up all the Science Things and give us talking points for cocktail parties. No one personally believes he likes to play golf because the brain is pre-wired to enjoy swinging poles and lying, but hell, it probably explains the rise of golf in general. The new science says so, anyway.
There’s nothing wrong with middlebrow science. People like to learn things. I enjoy reading about theoretical physics — or rather enjoy reading the first paragraph; after that, it’s gibberish. “The quoson beams interact with weak-attractor fizbin particles along the visible puce spectrum, confirming theories that fubari waves diffuse the hork factor.”
Okay, I guess. But a book that explains in layman’s terms why dark matter, well, matters — that’s not only good, but you get the quiet glow of realization that you’re the sort of person who enjoys knowing about dark matter. It rarely comes up in conversation unless it’s dinner with liberal relatives who go off on the make-up of Glenn Beck’s brain, but there’s that day when you’re driving home, listening to NPR, and the subject arises. Ah, you think, settling comfortably into the La-Z-Boy of self-regard, this is a matter with which I am somewhat familiar.
Many new books, however, seem keen to explain away the spark that makes humans different, to reduce us to chemical factories. The boon of modern medicine means that remedies exist for people brought low by depression and other ailments, but dammit, sometimes you have weltschmerz for a reason. Sadness is not pathological; despair is a perfectly rational reaction, particularly after you see the fall line-up on the networks. We are more than gears and lubricants, and while it’s interesting to read about the neurological origins of creativity, it’s like studying whether Hitchcock rode to work in a Ford or a Chevy. What counts is Vertigo.
Scientists in previous eras wondered about the weight of a soul; now, you suspect, they’re keen to find out why in Sagan’s name we think we have one in the first place. If a brilliant young science writer wrote a book that proved we believe in God because of a lizard-brain holdover that processed thunder as speech, well, hosannahs all around. But Lehrer blasphemed the word of Dylan. Rock is God, and Dylan his only prophet. STONE HIM!
– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.