The genius and the damage done

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death. – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Walt Whitman, as photographed by Mathew Brady.

I am not a “natural” scientist. My interest in science is deep-rooted, and I’ve gone as far educationally in my field of physics as it is possible to do. However, science doesn’t come naturally to me, in the sense that I’ve always had to labor to understand. I envy those who seem to read a technical paper and immediately get what it’s about, or synthesize new information instantaneously.

However, for me, science is a compulsion, coupled with a need to share what I know and learn with others — as particle physicist A. Zee says, “I must confess that I have an almost insatiable desire to explain.”* (I have to suppress that urge at science museums sometimes.) Maybe at one point in my life, I might have successfully moved to another field, but right now I can’t see how. Losing science would be like losing a limb, losing my eyesight.

These thoughts arise from two cases within the last few weeks: that of Jonah Lehrer’s return to book-writing, and Eric Weinstein’s publicized (but as-yet unpublished) theory of everything. These cases have a certain symmetry, though in many ways they couldn’t be more different.

I. The prodigal

From a science writer’s perspective, Jonah Lehrer had it all: three bestselling books, regular high-profile writing gigs at spots like Wired and The New Yorker, and multiple contributions to other prominent outlets. He also writes very well, with prose that’s frequently inspired. I reviewed his last book Imagine favorably, and drew a number of quotes from it for reference for my own book-in-progress.

However, the turning point arrived soon after: beginning with the realization that Lehrer recycled material from one paid article into another (a questionable practice, but not horrible), others uncovered acts of blatant plagiarism and fabrication of quotes. On multiple occasions, including in Imagine, Lehrer copied others’ words or made up quotes — including infamously from Bob Dylan — to serve his purpose.

Lehrer’s publisher withdrew Imagine from shelves (something you can guess doesn’t happen often), and he was unceremoniously dismissed from his regular writing gigs. For most people, that would likely be the end of the story: the disgraced individual would have to start over again in another field. That’s the story of Stephen Glass, another plagiarist who lost his job, and now is rebuilding his life in a law firm that often defends the homeless. Lehrer, on the other hand, has already given a very high-profile public speech for which he was paid $20,000 (significantly more than I earned for all the work I did last year). And now he has a new book proposal, already accepted for publication by Simon & Schuster.

Fabrication and plagiarism are both career-ending injuries in writing, and for good reason. When you write, people need to be able to trust what you say. However, trust is hard to build and easy to wreck — honest mistakes can destroy someone’s trust in your work, after all, if they’re serious enough. (Admittedly, some people set unattainably high standards for trust, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) Sometimes the problem can be unconscious (which is much easier in music, as with George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord“), which may or may not be disastrous.** When anyone deliberately deceives, however, that’s an entirely different issue.

I have no access to Lehrer’s mind or thought processes, except through what he’s written and said publicly. So far, he sounds like a politician caught taking kickbacks or in an affair, who still wants to hold on to his power, money, influence, and marriage. He doesn’t deny his wrongdoing, but he wants us to overlook it completely and give him a second chance. I’ll assume he won’t try plagiarizing again (something others are less willing to do), but anyone accepting a book from him should definitely be cautious about cross-referencing his source material. As John Rennie asks, “has he suddenly made himself trustworthy, in the absence of discipline that he acknowledges he doesn’t yet have?”

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the steps to recovery include admission of wrongdoing, and the program explicitly calls for making amends to those who were injured wherever possible. Lehrer has realized his life is a wreck, but he seems to lack the self-awareness to realize that he’s lost the trust of people who should be his colleagues, friends, and allies. He’s a contrite drunk, but at least so far doesn’t seem to understand that his past behavior will make most of us unwilling to accept anything new. He’s broken the trust. His editor at Simon & Schuster, Jonathan Karp, told the New York Times that Lehrer deserves leniency because he’s talented, and implied that as a non-journalist he doesn’t have to be held to the same standard that a journalist would.***

In a way I can understand it if Lehrer’s need to keep writing, as opposed to a desire to continue being relatively rich and famous. He’s a writer, and he was extraordinarily successful before his plagiarism was exposed. In his adult life, he’s basically been paid for writing; whether or not he thinks other work is beneath him, or if he can’t imagine doing anything else, it might be better for him to try for a while. In any case, as someone struggling to find a publisher for my own (non-plagiarized, fully-sourced) book, I have trouble forgiving Lehrer — but more so his editor at Simon & Schuster.

II. Sympathy for Weinstein

Eric Weinstein, on the other hand, didn’t do anything wrong. He’s a Ph.D. physicist who left academia to work at a hedge fund, but kept up research in his spare time. In that, he’s not alone, but he gained an ally in the form of Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who wrote an extremely laudatory piece about Weinstein’s research for the Guardian. The claims du Sautoy made were extreme: Weinstein’s theory solved physics, in essence. Dark matter, dark energy, and the unification of gravity with the other forces of nature were all achieved in this theory.

Now, I get claims like this on a weekly basis in my email and in comments on this blog. (You don’t see them usually, because they don’t make it past moderation. This site isn’t a clearinghouse for that sort of thing.) Weinstein’s credentials are better than the usual peddlers of Theories of Everything, though, so he’s obviously not your run-of-the-mill crackpot. However, a Ph.D. in physics isn’t a guarantee of correctness, nor are all problems solvable by application of a brilliant intellect.

I can’t evaluate Weinstein’s theory because I haven’t read it. It’s not published, and not even a draft paper is available online yet. Weinstein isn’t being secretive — he gave two public talks in England — but the disconnect between the hype and any real knowledge about the research is huge. Based on what I’ve read, the theory is geometrical (I’m sympathetic to that approach, as someone with background in general relativity and gauge theory) and provides testable predictions about both dark matter candidate particles and the nature of dark energy. Without a paper, though, we can’t say for sure, though Richard Easther pointed out (again, without seeing the calculations) that Weinstein’s dark energy model may already have been ruled out.

Science is necessarily a critical field: we have to try poking holes in other people’s work, not out of spite but to make sure the research holds. (Some do critique out of spite, but those destructive impulses don’t do any good for science.) A theory that withstands tests and criticisms is a robust theory. That’s why it’s important to see Weinstein’s work: not because we’re assuming it’s wrong (at least if we are doing it right), but because we can’t evaluate it otherwise.

I’m more like Weinstein than not. OK, he’s probably a lot richer than I am, if he works for a hedge fund. (I’m a freelance writer, after all.) However, we’re both former academics, we both have an interest in the Big Problems of cosmology, especially dark energy. Neither of us have much background in particle physics, at least as far as I can tell on his part. Despite not being employed in academia, we’re both still intensely interested — obsessed, perhaps — with what we studied, yet couldn’t make an academic career work for us, for whatever reason. I’m not him, and he’s not me, but we’re perhaps more similar than we are different.

I am sympathetic to Weinstein, in other words. I have two research projects sitting on my desk, at different stages of completion. Both are far more modest than Weinstein’s theory: one has to do with calculating tunneling time through a quantum barrier, the other with the mathematics of classical particles moving close to the speed of light. I want to finish both, even if they aren’t publishable, just to get them done. Part of the reason I haven’t finished them is simply time: every minute I’m working on them is a minute I’m not spending on something else (writing, doing essential household tasks, sleeping)…and research for me isn’t something I can do easily in my “spare” time, so a stolen hour here or there doesn’t cut it for me.

However, another reason I have trouble doing research is more subtle. As I said earlier, I have a compulsive need to talk about my science, and I don’t have any colleagues around to talk this stuff through. When you work alone, you talk to yourself (literally in some cases). If I’m my only audience, I risk only telling myself what I want to hear — or talking myself out of reasonable ideas, both good things and objections. I worry about that with Weinstein: has scientific isolation allowed him go down where discussion with colleagues would have saved him the trouble? If his dark energy model has already been ruled out, then I suspect the answer is yes. As my friend Katie Mack pointed out, science is an inherently social activity, and some of the most productive science isn’t done sitting at the computer or in the lab, but hanging out with other researchers in the pub or over coffee. (Seriously, go read Katie’s whole piece: it’s great work.)

III. Out of solitude

I don’t know either Lehrer or Weinstein. Both men could be driven by narcissism and ambition, rather than by a compulsion to explore and explain. However, if I see anything of myself in them, it’s that they need to speak to others, to share, to communicate, to listen, to learn. Openness to what others hear and see and do — in science as in any other endeavor — is essential. If you talk only to yourself, you will cease to explain, and eventually you’ll cease to understand. Let Walt Whitman be our guide (albeit in a less erotic sense than he intends):

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.


* The A. Zee quote, by the way, is from the most readable graduate-level textbook I’ve yet run across: Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell. Other textbook authors should read this book and imbibe its lessons in prose and structure.

** Music has many acceptable forms of plagiarism, ranging from quoting musical phrases (AKA paying homage, where people know you’re deliberately borrowing from someone else) or sampling riffs to building new musical pieces around previously written melodies. J.S. Bach built much of his career around the latter; a lot of folk music and jazz freely steals to varying degrees.

*** I guess that means I can make stuff up on my blog, since it isn’t journalism?


2 responses to “The genius and the damage done”

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