We Should Read Seneca, Not Lehrer

For those who didn’t follow him, Jonah Lehrer has a gift for turning science into a great story. His beautiful writing made it hard to resist the narrative fallacy.

The recent news about him fabricating quotes and generally offering a tenuous commitment to the truth caught me by surprise. But one question that we should have asked ourselves long ago — should we have avoided Lehrer and other pop-science journalists altogether?

Nassim Taleb argues yes.

In his book Anti-Fragile, he writes:

We are built to be dupes for theories. But theories come and go; experience stays. Explanations change all the time, and have changed all the time in history (because of causal opacity, the invisibility of causes) with people involved in the incremental development of ideas thinking they always had a definitive theory; experience remains constant.

…what physicists call the phenomenology of the process is the empirical manifestation, without looking at how it glues to existing general theories. Take for instance the following statement, entirely evidence-based: If you build muscle, you can eat more without getting more fat deposits in your belly and can eat plenty of lamb chops without having to buy a new belt. Now in the past the theory to rationalize it was “Your metabolism is higher because muscles burn calories.” Currently I tend to hear “You become more insulin-sensitive and store less fat.” Insulin, shminsulin; metabolism, shmetabolism: another theory will emerge in the future and some other substance will come about, but the exact same effect will continue to prevail.

The same holds for the statement Lifting weights increases your muscle mass. In the past they used to say that weight lifting caused the “micro-tearing of muscles,” with subsequent healing and increase in size. Today some people discuss hormonal signaling or genes, tomorrow they will discuss something else. But the effect has held forever and will continue to do so.

On Facebook, Taleb writes:

When it comes to narratives, the brain seems to be the last province of the theoretician-charlatan. Add neurosomething to a field, and suddenly it rises in respectability and becomes more convincing as people now have the illusion of a strong causal link—yet the brain is too complex for that; it is both the most complex part of the human anatomy and the one that is the most susceptible to sucker-causation and charlatanism of the type “Proust Was A Neuroscientist”. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons brought to my attention in their book The Invisible Gorilla the evidence I had been looking for: whatever theory has a reference in it to the brain circuitry seems more “scientific” and more convincing, even when it is just is randomized psycho-neuro-babble.

Taleb’s point, I think, is that most of Lehrer’s writing on science, while narratively sexy, derived from theories based on very little data. Most of these theories, won’t be around or even talked about in 100 years. Seneca, on the other hand, explained things that are still true today. Lehrer is noise. Seneca is signal.

Still curious? A great way to start reading Seneca is to pick up Letters of a Stoic and Dialogues and Essays.