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 ... 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Mental illness, autism, and mass murder, or why Joe Scarborough needs to shut up


Via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain. 

[Note: Some of this information comes from a post that previously appeared at The Biology Files following the shooting massacre in Arizona targeting U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, among others.]

Today, Joe Scarborough at MSNBC warned viewers not to generalize about the horrific events in Aurora, CO, and then proceeded to opine that the killer in question was "on the autism scale." I'm not exactly sure what "on the autism scale" means, as I've never in all my years of involvement in the autism community come across such a device, but many of us in that community were waiting--nay, expecting--something like this almost from the minute we learned who had committed these murders. Too bad it came from a parent member of that community.

Hey, Joe, you've got a gun in your hand, and it's not like the one that the who-knows-what-his-disorder-is murderer in Aurora used. No. Your weapon is of a more subtle nature, and you wield it from a venue that reaches millions of people who don't know that the ammo you're firing is empty bullshit. But that bullshit ends up smearing the autistic community as violent criminals capable of all manner of psychotic behavior, including the taking of innocent lives and the well-planned rigging of an apartment building with dangerous explosives. And you must understand this on some level, as you have a son who is on the autism spectrum.

Here's the thing, Joe. You're conflating what can be very personal, nonfatal aggression of an overwhelmed autistic person with the wanton and willful and carefully planned destruction of total strangers in a crowded theater. Yes, some autistic people are aggressive, in the moment, in response to a moment, to being overwhelmed and not understood, to being mishandled and misused. That sort of aggression is a very, very different animal from the sort of cold, calculated malevolence that leads a young man to inflict tragedy across a large swath of humanity, total strangers to him, arriving with a measured burst of deadly force before calmly surrendering himself to authorities. You, Joe Scarborough, see that behavior as somehow "on the autism scale." Anyone who has even a mild grasp of autism knows how very far from reality that kind of behavior is for an autistic person. 

So let's talk about violence. 

A look at the violence literature reveals two rough categories of violent brain and genetics: the brain of the impulsively or hostilely violent and the brain of the proactive, or instrumentally violent--the one who carefully plans the violent act, rather than committing it in the heat of the moment. Impulsive violence, thanks to its unpredictability and relative ubiquity, seems to get the bulk of the attention. Proactive violence, which encompasses the planned violence of war, is a different animal altogether. And psychopathic instrumental violence may well be the most terrifying of them all. The two appear to have very different underlying mechanisms and origins, as well:
Biological models of violence have identified distinct neural patterns that characterize each type of violence. For example, the "low-arousal" aggressor more likely to commit instrumental violence is underreactive and responds sluggishly to stressors. In contrast, the "high-arousal" aggressor who is more prone to hostile violence tends to be hypervigiliant and easily frustrated 
In humans, instrumental aggression is roughly analogous to predatory aggression although it is limited to intraspecies behavior....Similarly, emotional or hostile aggression in humans could be considered the analogue of defensive aggression in response to a threat or perceived threat.
No one--and I mean, no one--has a clue what drove this man to commit his heinous crimes. What we do know is that he planned his hellish introduction into our psyches for months beforehand, carefully accumulating all the accouterments needed to generate a national and personal nightmare. What we also know is that he carefully planned his violent act; it was not, like an autistic meltdown, an act of the moment, an unplanned reaction

And you're wrong on some other counts as well, demonstrating the real dangers of a weapon like yours in the hands of the uninformed. You said that the minute you heard about the shooting, you knew it would be young white male, probably from "an affluent neighborhood." While being young, white, and male may fit the profile of many serial killers, mass murders are a different breed. They come from different backgrounds and ethnicities, but most share a single motivation: revenge. When they go beyond personal connections in their targets and kill total strangers, that revenge is usually against a society the killer thinks has wronged him. 

Other features in common are being male, being a "loner," and feeling alienated from the world. For the record, "autistic" does not equate with "loner" or "male," as much as you or the news media would like to distort it into that mold. Research, such as it is, suggests that the more a killer goes impersonal and targets strangers, the more likely a mental illness is to be involved. While that mental illness is usually paranoid schizophrenia, we must all remember that there are many, many more murderers in this world who are not schizophrenic than there are schizophrenics who commit this kind of violence. The coupling is not inevitable or even common. Indeed, better predictors of violence are unemployment, physical abuse, and recent divorce. The killer in the Aurora case had recently in effect become unemployed, having left graduate school and done poorly on spring exams. 

I'll close with this final observation: Autism is a disorder that is present from birth or very soon after. There are, however, other mental disorders and mental breaks that occur, particularly in young men and particularly at vulnerable developmental periods like adolescence and early adulthood. Not only does autism not fit here simply by virtue of its lifelong presence, but also, it's not something that just kinda shows up when a man turns 24 years old. 

The man who destroyed so many lives showed several signs of extreme stress prior to his murderous rampage. Were these stressors the trigger for him? That, I cannot say. But I can say that stress does not bring on autism in one's 20s, and autism at any age doesn't lead to carefully calculated revenge killings of innocent strangers. So, Joe, why don't you just put down your weapon and back away... as quickly as you can.