Amid the tiny din of two-hundred micturating rodents, Ralph X. Bumblefutz goggled in disbelief at a discovery that would forever lay waste to the West’s most cherished ideas about incontinence. It was a clear Autumn morning in 1974, in a cluttered basement laboratory occupying a disused corner of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, and pants would never be the same. But before we can come to terms with Bumblefutz and his paradigm-exploding diapered hamsters, we must travel in time to 14th-century Tuscany and confront the mystery of a beloved Dominican friar hanged to death for frock-soiling. …
O’ God! What hath Gladwell wrought?! Plenty of “ideas non-fiction” editors think this hype is what readers want. And maybe they do want this. Maybe editors know readers. But not this one. No, not me. I swear to sweet Moses I’m sick unto death of the anecdote-choked, aha!-hunting ,”What the New Science of Blah Tells Us about Blech,” book-length collection of pop-sci features articles. Which is why I have not come, to the best of my knowledge, within fifteen feet of Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works.Which is terribly unfair. Lehrer’s a smart guy capable of fine writing, and I only suspect he’s plowing the field I’d rather see salted. Still, Issac Chotiner’s smart, harsh review of Imagineplayed to my prejudices. (And I wanted to try my hand at a gee-whiz parody, which is fun!)
Chotiner comes down hard on Lehrer’s attempt to torture a Bob Dylan anecdote into the illustration of a principle drawn from the science (the “new science”, one trusts) of how the brain does it thing:
THERE IS LITTLE to be learned about Bob Dylan, or the creative process more generally, from Jonah Lehrer. What his book has to teach, and by example, is the fetishization of brain science, and the anxious need for easy answers to complex questions. Imagine is divided into two sections, “Alone” and “Together,” because Lehrer is interested in distinguishing between an individual’s creativity and the environments that allow creativity to flourish. His basic argument regarding individuals, captured in his discussion of Dylan, is that being obsessively focused on a problem can lead to a dead end. When we are relaxed, by contrast, we are more likely to direct our attention inward, and thus detect the “connections that lead to insights.” Similarly, Lehrer preaches the value of so-called “horizontal interactions,” which are characterized by “people sharing knowledge across fields.” The benefit of such “conceptual blending” is that it allows “people to look at their most frustrating problems from a fresh perspective.”
Sounds a heck of a lot like Arthur Koestler’s 1964 The Act of Creation, my favorite book about creativity. (I think I’ve read two books on creativity, maybe.) Also, ouch. Anyway, Chotiner is not impressed by Lehrer’s mode of argumentation:
Lehrer’s slippery language is crucial to his method. He writes, “The people deep inside a domain—the chemists trying to solve a chemistry problem—often suffer from a kind of intellectual handicap.” A page later he notes that “the young know less, which is why they often invent more.” In both cases, the crucial, slippery word is “often.” In the first instance, Lehrer is just stating an obvious fact—a fresh look may be useful, an outsider can see what an insider may overlook—but one which does not explain much. In the second instance, the “often” completely destroys the point of the sentence. Do the young invent more, or not? No doubt in the entire history of humanity, the young have “often” come up with inventions. But how often, exactly? And what does he mean by young? In the ancient and medieval and early modern centuries, and even into the nineteenth century, thirty or forty was not young. Their dates of birth are not all we need to know.
The problem keeps recurring. Of a surfing expert with Asperger’s, Lehrer writes, “Clay’s ability to innovate in surfing is rooted in a defining feature of his mental disorder.” Is Lehrer saying that Clay’s surfing expertise is the result of his disease, or merely that certain properties of the disease may lead to success in fields like surfing? Are there an unusually high number of surfers who suffer from Asperger’s? We are not further enlightened.
Chotiner goes on, hacking away mercilessly. Again, I’m not sure it’s all fair, though I’m inclined to accept the gist of his assessment. But I am sure Chotiner’s critique of Lehrer’s genre is fair:
IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.
As I complained in my review of David Brooks’ The Social Animal, Brooks‘ gallimaufry of “studies say” tidbits never comes together into a coherent picture, suggesting he doesn’t understand the science he cites very well. I think that’s generally true of synthetic pop-science books by journalists writing in a Gladwellian or Brooksian vein. Popularizations that hold up are most likely penned by actual experts who happen to write well, such as Daniel Kahneman or Jonathan Haidt. More often, though, serious scholars with fresh findings worth taking to the intelligent public are led by their editors or their own dim sense of popular style to ruin otherwise good books by littering them with hyperventilating anecdotes of doubtful relevance. Far from making these texts more readable, books bristling with zingy narrative hooks suggest to the reader that the actual intellectual content is too boring to bear. I’m through with this stuff.
Man, now I want to read The Act of Creation again. (Time to reissue, publishers!) That’s a damn good book.