Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (2009)

I was so proud to be able to report here that I have finally read a science book and enjoyed it. This is something I never do.

And then I googled “Jonah Lehrer” and I think my jaw literally dropped: the name came associated with the words “plagiarism scandal” and “disgrace”. It soon appeared to me that the science writer has been accused of fabricating quotes and plagiarizing in several of his books last year, that he has been sacked from his job at the New Yorker and that several of his books (among which the one I’d been reading) had been pulled from stores. I’m not even sure the whole affair is over yet.

I was not expecting this at all! And I certainly wouldn’t have noticed any error or mistake put into this book that sounded brilliant and fascinating to me.

To come back to the book itself, Lehrer demonstrates how our brain comes to take decisions, which are not, contrary to the traditional thought, linked to our rational, logical brain (cortex). The logical brain is way too slow to take split-second decisions and analyze multiple data. No, decisions are often taken in the emotional brain (the limbic) in an unconscious way, guided by patterns and by the experience of past failures. Somehow I found this information comforting and important, because I feel I often don’t listen enough to my intuition. I try to reason and list arguments, and sometimes, too much analysis or too much information is plain confusing.

There are a lot of other bits of knowledge to glean from these pages, so much so that I bought the book as a birthday present for a relative who works in the science field. Now, I hope he doesn’t come back in 6 months and tells me everything in there is fake!

I’m certainly sorry I can’t recommend this book because of the plagiarism scandal. Otherwise, it was highly entertaining and informative, and nearly reconciled me with reading science books.

I also need to explain that people in France are much less sensitive to plagiarism than in the American-British academic and literary culture. Writers who have been suspected of plagiarism here have made the headlines but their careers and sales figures have not suffered that much. They would never have been shamed into resigning or their books pulled from shelves like in this case. But knowing that some of the book has been copied certainly leaves a stale taste to the experience.

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3 thoughts on “Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (2009)

  1. The cultural difference where plagiarism is concerned can be a real problem in Universities that take a significant number of overseas students. I know we have had to explain that copying out what someone else has written in a text book is not just unacceptable, it is the sin par excellence. I’m surprised that an academic would take the risk of publishing for the general reader though. How on earth did he think he would get away with it?

  2. As far as my understanding goes, Lehrer only ever plagiarized himself but he did it so frequently and always as presenting the work as new that people got angry. Even more of a problem though was the fact that several Bob Dylan quotes in Lehrer’s book “Imagine” were completely made up. I’ve had his book Proust was a Neuroscientist on my shelf for very long time and haven’t yet decided whether I will keep it and read it. It will probably stay on my shelf until I run out of room and an forced to decide. But you, what matters I think is whether you enjoyed the book and got something out of it and I think you did.

  3. How distressing to find out about the scandal in this way, after having read the book and liked it! That shouldn’t detract from the accomplishment of reading a science book, but it’s too bad your experience was soured in that way. Boo to Jonah Lehrer!

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