I feel sad about Jonah Lehrer. I feel sad that he fell into such error. I enjoyed his writing. I have missed him being in the mix, and am sorry that his hiatus has turned into an exit. It is a little troubling to be unsure how accurate his writing was, but the results are devastating, nuclear: he loses his reputation, his livelihood, his place in the Gesellschaftliche Meritocracy. He sinned, and he has been cast out.
What do I mean by the Gesellschaftliche Meritocracy? A particularly pervasive idea of the Meritocracy is that cream always rises to the top. The trick is that one has to prove that one is cream. One has to prove merit via conspicuous everything: conspicuous consumption (house, cars, clothes), conspicuous virtue (Prius, recycling, adoption from abroad), conspicuous intelligence (right degree from right school, right career), outward perfection (hair, teeth, body). I hear a great deal of complaining about Americans having a “sense of entitlement” but if one has been raised in the Meritocracy, and one’s parents merited, then rather than having a sense of unique entitlement, as is implied, one just has a feeling of natural entitlement: one’s parents merited, one is as good (if not better), therefore, one merits, and whatever should arrive for the meritorious will arrive.
That the economy may not support as many people “meriting” as it once did, or to sufficiently absorb all the deserving children of the meritorious as well as all of those with meritorious potential, is a real problem. In the Meritocracy there is always a calculation about who is meriting now and will continue to merit “the 1%,” those not meriting now but who have some hope of doing so in the future “the 99%,” those not meriting currently but who once did and may again “the comeback,” and those who will never merit “the losers.” The Occupy intuition that most people should merit is nice but perhaps runs counter to the Meritocracy’s reward system: the race to seem more meritorious involves conspicuously consuming large amounts of resources. Also, among some of the meritorious there is a sense that reward comes from hard work, discounting luck and connections and advantages of privilege, and that anyone not meriting just hasn’t tried hard enough or is failing to merit because of some essential deficit or defect. Hence the vague unease with Michael Lewis’ commencement speech at Princeton that emphasized the role of luck in his own meritorious rise. It contradicts the popular myth of the Meritocracy that when one succeeds it is as a result of one’s own effort, and that such success is evidence of one’s merit as a person.
If Lehrer had committed a sin among the sort of Gemeinschaftliche Christians I hang out with*, he would have a path back to righteousness. We may be puritanical and judgmental by Gesellschaftliche standards, but the system has an error-catching subroutine that can allow the individual program to keep running, even after the system throws an exception. The behavior is an error, but the person can recover. In the Meritocracy, when the system throws an exception, the error may be caught, but there is no programming there to handle it. The behavior isn’t the error, the person is. Blue screen of death is the only option.
In the world of Gemeinschaftliche Christians, Lehrer could confess his sins (generally, among Christians who wear plain dress like me, the confession would be to the whole community, not a private confession to a priest) and everyone would (probably) forgive him, believe that God had forgiven him, believe that he had learned his lesson and that he would not do it again. Because, really, they would say to themselves, isn’t it pretty unlikely he would do it again? Motive wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if it was a defect of character like lying or cowardice. It wouldn’t matter if it was pure self interest or malice. If he sincerely sought assistance from God and his community, people would generally believe he could overcome it. This repentance and forgiveness scenario would be God and his faith community’s chance to show him the error of his sin and to bring him back to the Way and the Truth. But Jonah Lehrer is a member of the Meritocracy, and one who had been particularly meriting in that system. There is neither a particular way to confess sins (in a way that meaningfully clears them) nor to forgive sins (either via God or via the community).
In online discussions it seems to be a concern that errors are one thing, but the character flaw of being a liar is another. Among the sort of Christians I hang out with, we are all sinners. We are all liars. And only he who is without sin can cast the first stone. Human nature being what it is, we may be dismayed but we aren’t shocked by the idea that people will slip into real error. It doesn’t make me or my sort of Christians inherently superior to members of the Meritocracy (we are all sinners!) but it is an interesting cultural difference. And where does the Gemeinschaftliche community go wrong? Tragedies of child molestation like Penn State and the Roman Catholic Church come to mind, where wrong is allowed to happen again and again. The options available to Lehrer are limited by his culture.
So is Jonah Lehrer someone who will live out the meritorious comeback script or the loser script?
Robert Wright suggests in his (very short) article in the Atlantic “Resenting Jonah Lehrer” that, if history is any guide, Lehrer will be forgiven and allowed back into a career in writing. Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) and Robert Wright (@RobertWrighter) then had an interesting discussion on Twitter debating whether or not Lehrer’s case mirrors Doris Kearns Goodwin or James Frey (both successfully recovered their writing careers after scandals, plagiarism in her case, and flat-out lying and fabrication in his). Myself, I can’t help thinking of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, journalists like Jonah Lehrer. According to his Wikipedia entry, Jayson Blair is now working as a consultant and life coach. Also according to Wikipedia, Stephen Glass is apparently working as a paralegal. Whatever good they may be accomplishing in these new careers, they did not recover their careers as writers. Jonah Lehrer seems someplace in between, more famous and popular than Blair or Glass, less popular than Frey, less established than Goodwin. Frey essentially was already writing fiction, and so the switch from memoir to novel was easy and natural. Lehrer claimed to be writing about the truth of reality via science and scientific inquiry. Science and scientists will not be open to him, as in that world lying and fabrication is a form of contamination that can rub off. As Robert Wright said in his article, “But, as a practical matter, the way to hold the incidence of sin down is to punish sinners.” What, precisely, the online debates explore, was Lehrer’s sin? What might have caused it, and how would one prevent it in the future?
Bradley Voytek wrote a helpful post on his blog (Oscillatory Thoughts) called “The Deception Ratchet” that there were problems with Jonah Lehrer’s writings that aren’t about lies or fabrication but rather a problem in writing about neuroscience in general: sins of omission. And he gets at the heart of what may be the slippery slope that led to the cliff Lehrer jumped off:
The whole style of writing popular amongst the “Big Idea” crowd pushes for errors of omission in favor of a tight story. This is such a minor sin—one for which you almost certainly cannot be caught—that the allure to commit the lie probably overwhelms any inner voice of caution. But once you take that first deceptive step, you are statistically more likely to be willing to baby step your way farther and farther in service of that tight story.
Underlying all of this, I can’t help seeing something of the cultural assumptions of the Meritocracy. To merit, one must make plenty of money, plenty of the time, with plenty of conspicuously meritorious output to be admired by others with plenty. That can only happen when one is publishing “tight” stories with “Big Ideas.” It seems to me entirely similar to the problem described by Voytek in science and academia more broadly, where the only way to stay on track is to publish Big Ideas that generate lots of citations, where there is little encouragement to fact-check oneself, and while some see science as a fact-checking system that overcomes the confirmation bias of human nature, the reality is that much that is published in science journals is not fact checked, as in some fields there can be little incentive to actually re-do research that other scientists have done, or no budget and even less time. This problem has inspired Brian Nosek at The Open Science Framework to launch the Reproducibility Project to try to reproduce the research published in several major journals of psychology over the course of one year.
It is inherent in the Gesellschaftliche Meritocracy that the patient, the quiet, and the merely good can get lost in the rush to merit (or at least seem meritorious). The fall from grace will be drastic because so many capable, meritorious and ambitious people are waiting to fill the small number of merit-satisfying slots. It means rewarding the great at the cost of the good, which is a bargain most Americans seem to have decided is worth the cost.
* Why do I keep saying “my sort of Christians” everywhere? Because I am something of a statistical outlier in Christianity (Conservative Quaker of the Wilburite sect—me and maybe 200 of my closest Friends), I don’t feel comfortable suggesting I speak for Christianity broadly, but it is a position supportable within Christianity and it deeply informs my perspective on this controversy and my observations of the Gesellschaftliche Meritocracy.