Friday, August 3, 2012

Revisiting Imagine: How Creativity Works

In April writer Pat laFleur reviewed Imagine: How Creativity Works for ArtSeen. In this latest article he reassess the book after controversy emerged surrounding some of the book's content.

Another Take on Imagine: How Creativity Works by Pat laFleur

This past Monday, Jonah Lehrer - darling of the journalism and pop-science communities - was crucified.  In an article posted this afternoon, Michael Moynihan outed the bestselling author for fudging facts regarding Bob Dylan’s career as they pertain to his most recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  Lehrer himself, in a public statement, has corroborated Moynihan’s claims.  Nightmare, right?

Well, let’s step back and think about this for a moment.  It’s easy to challenge - no, totally erase Lehrer’s credibility here, and it wouldn’t be the first time.  Lehrer has a track record of questionable evidence in his writing, whether it’s the accuracy of information or over-simplified interpretation.  But here Moynihan is right on to conclude that, with Imagine, Lehrer has proven himself more troubled professionally than a young journalist just gaining his footing.

I worry, though, that readers will be quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater here... or, at least leave the room and forget the baby’s in the tub.  In wondering how crucial the Dylan facts are to Lehrer’s scientific accuracy, I went back and read over my notes.  I found that I never once scribbled the words Bob or Dylan on my notepad.  Why not?  Because, for Lehrer, Dylan is a model of a theory in practice, which we need not confuse for evidence supporting that theory’s accuracy. 

In re-reading the chapter in question, it became clear to me that we could remove the Dylan anecdotes from the chapter without diminishing the scientific information.  Lehrer devotes at least half of the chapter to outlining psychology professor Mark Beeman’s research on moments of insight (“Eureka!” moments).  For Lehrer, Dylan’s process provided an instance of “find[ing] the strange thread connecting...disparate” things.  This, according to Beeman, is a right-brain process central to gaining insight and thinking with originality.  In the chapter, we don’t see much evidence at all, actually; instead, simply a summary of Beeman’s research.  Dylan, on the other hand, is Lehrer’s evidently failed attempt to link that science to popular culture.  Nothing more.

Unfortunately for Lehrer, this failure is precisely where the book - and, admittedly, my earlier review - wrongly claims that it succeeds.  But still, I’m not ready to throw away my copy just yet.  Maybe it’s because I’m wondering why it took a self-identified “Dylan obsessive” - rather than a neuroscientist, or (*gasp*) an editor at Houghton-Mifflin - to point out the book’s lack of citation of any kind.  It’s now more evident than ever that Lehrer’s use of information should be scrutinized with a gigantic microscope, especially when he practices such disregard for reference or citation.  But, until someone points out misleading reference to scientific studies like Beeman’s, I think I’ll throw out the Dylan, but keep the science.  It is, after all, still pretty cool stuff.

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