If things go a certain way, this fall from grace could be the best thing that ever happened to Jonah Lehrer. In spending the past decade striving to be The Next Malcolm Gladwell, he has fallen victim to Gladwell’s besetting sin, which is glibness. In the Gladwellian intellectual cosmos, immensely complex ideas and experiences get boiled down to simplistic binary oppositions or are run through a single interpretative filter (here’s the tipping point, there’s the blink of instantaneous judgment).
Arguments like this, and Lehrer makes a lot of them, can only seem plausible if you have that zinger of a quote to clich the case, that utterly perfect illustration of the argument. But what if you can’t find the quote? What if nothing has happened that demonstrates your point just so? Your deadline isn’t going away, and you live by your writing — you don’t have another career to fall back on — so maybe you fudge a bit. And that’s what Lehrer did, and that’s what he got caught doing.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s not worth it: maybe the neat little points you make that way aren’t intellectually substantive enough to justify the risks you take on their behalf. There could be a better way to go about this business of trying to understand human behavior and explain it to others. That other way will require more patience, more research, possibly more education (Lehrer has two bachelor’s degrees); and it will probably result in books that don’t sell as well, so the lifestyle will take a hit. But if you can make a real and lasting contribution to the human understanding of ourselves, the tradeoffs are more than worth it. I hope Jonah Lehrer finds that better path.