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The Lies We Tell: A Review of Imagine: How Creativity Works

I was so excited to get my hands on Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  I had read reviews when it first came out and put it on my request list at the library.  The audio book came in and I couldn’t wait for each small trip in the car to hear more. His storytelling was extraordinary and each car ride left my head spinning with new flashes of creative insight.

Then I sat down to write this review and found out he made some of it up.  Lehrer begins his book with a chapter on Bob Dylan’s brain.  He tells the story of Dylan’s great inventiveness as he wrote Like a Rolling Stone.  It’s a great tale, told in a way that you are there beside Dylan and watch the process unfold.  Interwoven are quotes from Dylan that support the claims of this science journalist.  When another journalist, a Dylan scholar, called to question the quotes, Lehrer outright lied.  He made up sources, deceived a fellow writer, and offered accounts of films he had never seen and emails never exchanged.

Lehrer was challenged again and admitted, “This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said. The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed.  I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”

Lehrer talks, in Imagine, about the creativity of Shakespeare and the Bard’s predilection for stealing material from every conceivable source.  Has postmodernity ushered in an age where we can borrow a historical fact, cloth it with new fictional decorations, and call it truth?  The books my son reads (for example Percy Jackson) time travel mythological and historical characters into present day crises. Recent journeys to the movies revealed a vampire slaying Abe Lincoln.  Mashups are creative expressions, even when truth and fiction are mashed together, we celebrate with enthusiastic participation.

Can we dismiss the intermix of fact and fiction as popular science journalism, holding out for ‘real’ truth from scholarly sources?  A February 2012 CBS 60 minute special highlighted Dr. Amil Potti of Duke University’s resignation and return of hundred of thousands of research dollars when caught fraudulently recording numbers in cancer research studies.

Some examples go beyond lying for the sake of professional ego. Penn State professor Craig Grimes was sentenced last month to nearly 3 1/2 years in federal prison for more than $3 million in research grant fraud. He used the money for personal gain and never completed the research.

Most examples are not that egregious, yet it remains that our confidence in the peer review process and the ethics of our ivory towers of academia and medical research are being shaken. Bayer, a pharmaceuticals company, recently revealed that it fails to replicate about two-thirds of published studies identifying possible drug targets (Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, vol 10, p 712). Bad testing procedures, the inability to do complex mathematics, and outright fraud contribute to these growing numbers.

How are we to respond?  Critical thinking!  Critical thinking in the 21st century requires a literacy in STEM subjects (particularly math) and demands verification procedures, fact checking and reproducible tests.

That brings me back to Jonah Lehrer and the book Imagine. Should it be salvaged and rewritten? It was good, better than good; it was filled with insight and inspired me. Can he go away in seclusion, fact check the entire book and rerelease it (maybe with a new chapter on trust and honesty in the process of creativity?).  The book held forth real sensations of insight:  the difference between free-form creative thought and focused attention to a particular, the importance of centralized bathrooms, the inherent flaw in non-critical brainstorming, how the color blue can help you double your creative output, and how the neuroscience of creativity can make neighborhoods more vibrant, companies more productive and schools more effective.  I, for one, am ready to give Mr. Lehrer a chance to redeem himself, allow him to face the complexity of scientific investigation, and create anew with honesty and integrity worthy of the best a creative humankind.  Rewrite, Mr. Lehrer, rewrite!

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  1. Thanks, Ellen for writing this post and exploring these ideas. I too was so excited for the release of Jonah Lehrer’s book that I signed up for pre-release on my kindle. I love the story telling and provocative ideas that inspire us. I loathe that stories become fantasy. You ponder a valid question of where does creativity steer away from fact and reality? I explore this question almost daily in giving students activities to ignite their creativity. My way of doing this is to research and learn about the facts and use your imagination from there. Once in a while, I allow for an activity that is fantasy. We recently wrote a storybook similar to “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” where students explored space hazards and their solutions. The space hazards and solutions had to be real; drawing their way out to solve the problem was the fantasy. I cannot abide enhancing the truth and it happens every day to all of us. Thus is the purpose behind scientific exploration and the scientific method. You make a hypothesis and list assumptions (truths) and work from there. Failure or unexpected results are accepted. There is no room to falsify results.

    At the same time, we all know that there is research available on the Internet that satisfies anything one wants to propose. I am not comfortable in this world where reality is skewed. Even though I am a creative person, I still want the facts and the truth.

    So I am with you. Jonah Lehrer should apologize, show remorse and rewrite. Creativity should not be wasted, and neither should talent.

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