Frauds aplenty in the Penny Press!

It was a positive relief to escape from the now-deafening barrage of periodical commentary on the 2012 U.S. presidential election (my last ’12 election went very poorly – I’m hoping for better this time around) by leaping into the jam-packed pages of last week’s New York. There I found some first-rate movie-reviewing from David Edelstein, specifically his estimation of a movie called Flight which I will never see. The whole review is superb, but this estimation of the peculiar acting style of Denzel Washington stands out:

There’s something eerily self-absorbed about Washington. He’s not an actor who opens himself up – you never quite feel you know him, underneath. But that’s why his onscreen explorations of control and its opposite feel so right, so true to who he is as a performer and a man. When you watch Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, you see the Method at its most perilous and wobbly: you see an actor who has lost control as an actor and with it the ability to shape his performance. … But Washington takes [his character in Flight] Whip to another level. Despite the script’s overfamiliar beats (yes, there are twelve-step meetings), he anatomizes Whip’s existential seesaw. He break’s Whip’s – and his own – cool into pieces, the good and the bad, the supremely potent and the supremely impotent. This is a titanic performance.

The cover piece in this issue is equally good stuff: Benjamin Wallace’s article on the explosive ubiquity of Asperger’s Syndrome, on the seemingly all-encompassing breadth of “the spectrum.” Wallace writes an extremely clean line of high-octane glossy-prose (six beats per sentence, instead of the boring old two) that can be both thrilling and exhausting to read:

Like the actual clinical disorder, the cultural epidemic in scare quotes may have less to do with changes in the world than with changes in those seeing it. To some degree, the spectrum is our way of making sense of an upended social topography, a buckled landscape where nerd titans hold the high ground once occupied by square-jawed captains of industry, a befuddling digital world overrun with trolls and avatars and social-media “rock stars” who are nothing like actual rock stars. It is, as the amateur presidential shrinks would have it, a handy phrase for the distant, cerebral men with the ambition and self-possession necessary to mount a serious run for the White House. When quants and engineers are ascendant, when algorithms trump the liberal arts, when Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber tweet about the death of Steve Jobs, when the hyperspecialist has displaced the generalist and everyone is Matrix-ed into the Internet, it’s an Other-deriding tool to soothe our cultural anxiety about the ongoing power shift from humanists to technologists. As the coders inherit the Earth, saying someone’s on the spectrum is how English majors make themselves feel better.

But he’s got a style for summary that forgives a great many excesses (about the casual tossing-around of “Asperger’s” as a descriptive term, he writes, “At the same time it soothes the insecurities of those who would weaponize it as an insult, it flatters the vanity of those who’d appropriate it as status credential”)(if this isn’t the same “Ben Wallace-Wells” who wrote the damningly memorable “The Romney Economy,” they’ve had equally good English composition teachers), and his story here is utterly fascinating, for all that it no longer exercises me the way it once might have. I haven’t missed any of 2012′s Penny Press reportage on the 14 trillion dollar U.S. pharma-psychology racket, so when Wallace reports that before 1980, one in 2000 kids was diagnosed with some Asperger’s, I can almost predict what he’ll write next. Sure enough: by 2007, it was one in 152 American children, and by 2009 it was one in 110, and in 2012 it’s (very temporarily) at one in 88.

Since such increases can’t in any even vague sense of the word be real, my reading in 2012 has been more than sufficient to convince me of what my instincts might have told me anyway: that none of this is real. The description of this ‘disorder’ in the latest DSM is actually uproariously funny – it’s as open-ended an evocation of the human condition as anything since Pope’s “Essay on Man”; there’s simply no way anyone could read it and not think parts of it applied to themselves. It is, in other words, a breathtakingly cynical wholesale invention of the pharmaceutical industry, unsubstantiated by anything other than the fact that some kids are awkward and some adults are jerks.

Ironic, then, that “a little Asperger’s” has been used so often to describe the subject of another great piece in this issue, Boris Kachka’s article on the downfall of ersatz wunderkind Jonah Lehrer, hyper-precocious author of the best-selling Proust Was a Neuroscientist, among other things. Lehrer was recently caught ‘self-plagiarizing’ – re-using chunks of prose in one venue that he’d already used in other venues. And from then on, things just got worse, as Kachka reports:

… journalists found several more recycled posts, setting off a feeding frenzy one blogger called the “Google Game” – find a distinctive passage, Google it: pay dirt. On Wednesday, the irascible arts blogger Ed Champion unleashed an 8,000-word catalogue of previously published story material Lehrer had worked into Imagine. (Never mind that drawing on earlier stories for book projects is standard practice.) It was called “The Star Report o the Lehrer Affair.”

The resulting picture certainly looks bleak for Lehrer:

… Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just from his own stories but from at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will soon conclude a fact-check of his three books, the last of which, Imagine, was recalled from bookstores – a great expense for a company that, like all publishing houses, can’t afford to fact-check most books in the first place. In the meantime, he’s been completely ostracized. It’s unclear if he’ll ever write for a living again.

The whole fiasco has been blogged about by wiser heads than mine (and the whole thing strikes me – as so many things do – as the product of simple laziness: Lehrer isn’t an idiot – he was simply unwilling to take the time to vary the stuff he’d previously written for its new home; although accusations of plagiarizing others are of course a whole ‘nother ball game), but what I especially like about Kachka’s piece is how he stretches the story of Lehrer’s downfall to include a much broader indictment of the junk science vogue that currently has board rooms and international ‘conferences’ in its grip – junk science that promises quick, easy, pre-packaged Insight in the place of study, inference, and verification:

The Insight is less of an idea than a conceit, a bit of alchemy that transforms minor studies into news, data into magic. Once the Insight is in place – Blink, Nudge, Free, The World Is Flat – the data become scaffolding. It can go in the book, along with any caveats, but it’s secondary. The purpose is not to substantiate but to enchant.

He might have added to that list plenty of other equally infuriating Insights, from Superfreakonomics to Outliers to Strange Loops to Microtrends (and the apocalyptically conference-ready delusion that the human race is becoming less violent with time), and it’s nice to see them coming in for some of the collateral blame.

Although if Jonah Lehrer ever were genuinely wanting for writing-outlets, he could always email me at Open Letters. By now I suspect he himself is fact-checking even his prepositions, so I don’t foresee a problem.


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