Monday, July 30, 2012

Bob Dylan, Jonah Lehrer, nonfiction writing, and fact checking

Revelations today that a well-known and talented writer, Jonah Lehrer, fabricated quotes in one of his books, Imagine, have triggered reactions ranging from modulated pity to justified outrage (original piece that detailed the transgressions is here). The quotes, which Lehrer placed in the mouth of Bob Dylan, no less, aren't as important as their manufacture or the subsequent lies and damned lies Lehrer told to try to cover his tracks. Journalists followed the spoor, however, and now Lehrer's got some trouble in mind. As Michael Moynihan wrote in his piece breaking the story of Lehrer's behavior,
... making up sources, deceiving a fellow journalist, and offering accounts of films you have never seen and emails never exchanged, is, to crib Bob Dylan, on a whole other level. 
Some folk on Twitter, including me, observed that a little tactic called fact-checking might have at least saved publishers and editors from the backsplash of Lehrer's digital penstrokes. The only problem is, in general, books don't undergo fact-checking. That part of things--ensuring that quotes, information, and data are accurate--lies in the hands of the author. So if the author prevaricates, what lies on the pages are falsehoods presented to the trusting reader as truth. Imagine the process required to pull off a series of cheats like that: Cheating yourself, the person you're quoting, your editor, your publisher, reviewers of your book, people who interview you about your book, the readers for whom you wrote your book, the audiences who come to hear you speak about or read your book, other authors who use your book as a source, their readers, editors, reviewers ... the echoes of lies like that resonate infinitely.

Obviously, Lehrer wasn't interested in strict accuracy in this case. But for writers who are and who are writing books, how do they ensure that their words are as accurate and factual as possible? My own experience with this left me rushing for fact checks from reliable colleagues after my publisher let me know far too late that they had abandoned their practice of sending science-related books to scientific reviewers for vetting. Luckily, I had several scientists available to me who could take my pages and turn around their comments and suggestions in a matter of days. Even so, had I known earlier, I'd've probably sent it around at least to a second set of experts for even more review.

That book was all about biology and because of its generalist content and my personal network of biologist friends, I had little trouble finding people to review it. But what if you're writing a dense book with a complex narrative and a large cast of people who may not agree with each other? Finding an outside reviewer or reviewers for a book like that takes considerable work or could even be impossible if the content is particularly explosive or controversial. 

Authors interested in ensuring the greatest possible accuracy have to start at the beginning, even before writing, to avoid the temptation of introducing errant words to smooth a quote or touching up ideas or concepts to achieve picture-perfect phrasing or a pristine narrative. Brutal self honesty and impartial recording from the beginning are indispensable to staying clear of the slope that took Lehrer down. Some commenters on the Lehrer situation think that he focused so much on a flawless shiny argument and a pretty phrase that he wove these modifications and outright fictions into the fabric of his books for the sake of aesthetics. That he let his need for a clean fit and an airtight case override the requirements of the nonfiction writer to be accurate and honest with the reader, to have the courage to be messy and acknowledge the mess.

The fiction canvas offers a medium for writers crafting tidy story lines and glossy depictions of human relationships and thought. But real humans bring a real mess of a world where nothing fits, where arguments gape with holes even if they're generally sound, where science doesn't answer all the questions and instead tends to leave more lying around, and where Bob Dylan probably hasn't uttered a flawless, coherent phrase in an interview since the 1950s. That last mighta shoulda been a tipoff to readers, publishers, editors, and reviewers alike in the case of Imagine

In this chaotic and real world without fact checkers for books, nonfiction authors bear the burden of checking and rechecking for accuracy, not to avoid the deception of a Jonah Lehrer but to avoid the appearance of it. As with peer review in science, high-profile journalistic work, including nonfiction books, will attract peers with an eye for detail and a nose for even the slightest whiff of artistic manipulation. Regardless of what drove Lehrer to his current moment--an early breach of ethics that he helplessly expanded into an ethical chasm or the unlikely scenario of a Machiavellian plan to ruin his own career--his actions shadow the world of science, fueling suspicions that scientists and the people who write about science are tricksters manipulating information for their own ends. 

The only way for science writers to ease such suspicions is to remain vigilant and honest with themselves and others about their work. Professional fact checking and fact checkers are the surest way to securing that goal, as the best magazines and newspapers recognize. In their absence, book writers must rely on themselves and trust in their own objectivity in assessing content. In these cases, thinking twice--and checking twice--is absolutely all right, at least until the times a'change and publishers offer professional fact-checking for authors. Yes, you may say I'm a dreamer ... 

2 comments:

  1. Ya know, I had a problem with a book I read this past year too. It had flat-out falsehoods, among other issues. And I tried to find out how to get to the right person at the publisher, and they told me to contact the author.

    Wha? So I really had no recourse. What's a reader to do?

    ReplyDelete
  2. In terms of publishers and fact checkers, I think that we need to consider that the whole industry is in a flux, with cost cutting as a primary objective. I'd think that new mechanisms for peer review may need to be devised, with means to convey a sense of increased reliability of sourcing to the public. PLoS, for example, manages both open access and peer review.

    It seems obvious to me that if an author encloses a statement by another in quotes, it ought to be backed up by references, or clearly recognizable as fictionalized.

    I think that there is something odd about being tripped up for plagiarism when the topic is Bob Dylan, however. Bob Dylan himself was no stranger to such controversies, both in artwork:
    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/26/questions-raised-about-dylan-show-at-gagosian/
    and lyrics:
    http://folkmusic.about.com/od/bobdylan/a/Bob-Dylan-Plagiarism.htm

    ReplyDelete