I recently read Proust Was a Neuroscientistand I thoroughly enjoyed it. The author takes a look at various writers, thinkers, painters and gourmets and cleverly explains how they predicted things that neuroscience later proved to be true. For instance Auguste Escoffier cleverly forsaw the fifth taste, umami. He published a recipe book in 1903 that includes sauces that seem to be based solely on satisfying our desire for umami. Umami is better known because MSG, that ubiquitous additive, gives us a huge fix and thus is included in everything. Neuroscience suspected its existence (grudgingly) but didn’t find the first umami receptor on the tongue until 2000.
The writing was clear, the arguments were well thought out. The research seemed terrific. The fact the author had worked in a neuroscience lab clearly gave him some extra insight. He included George Eliot, one of my personal favourites, and agreed that Middlemarch is an incredible book. What wasn’t to like about it?
So it was a bit of a shock when the author, Jonah Lehrer, resigned from his two-month position at the New Yorker, admitting that he fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in his latest book, Imagine. This comes after his position at the New Yorker was undermined by the fact that many of the posts he wrote had appeared in other publications previously, leading the New Yorker to put a disclaimer at the top of each post.
This leads to suspicion. Never a good thing in a reader (actually a little is great, a lot is no good). I look back through the book and wonder about any and all quotes, wonder at the scientific studies he mentions, wonder, even, at his conclusions. All the while knowing I don’t have the time or energy to research an already-written book (I have half a dozen unwritten ones I really need to get on with). I can only trust that as the book was published in 2007 any discrepancies would have been caught by now.
This leads me to the book I’m currently reading, Flourishingby clinical psychologist Maureen Gaffney. She explains how there is a magic ratio of positive to negative that allows us to flourish. This ratio can be seen on any scale from career decisions to the most intimate relationships. Once we get the ratio right, we flourish and live up to our potential. The first part of the book explains how we are programmed to have a more extreme reaction to the negative than to the positive. Just think of our ancestors on the savannah; a lion racing towards them is more immediately deadly and urgent than the sense of relief after a good hunt. In short one negative can only be balanced by several positives. The second part of the book focuses on techniques we can use to achieve that magic ratio.
So looking at Jonah Lehrer this one negative is enough to outweigh the positive of his previous book for me. This is personally speaking of course, I haven’t read his second book or any of his articles. Perhaps if I were a true believer I’d be willing to forgive him more easily.
Only time will tell if he’ll be able to restore the trust was broken.