On a regular basis someone publishes a book in which they attempt to apply neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, or the social sciences to questions that the humanities are actually better equipped to address. As a consequence, such authors typically end up dressing up their embarrassingly sophomoric musings related to philosophy, literature, and culture in the trappings of scientific rigor. Meanwhile, they ignore — and show themselves to be thoroughly unacquainted with — the thousands of years of excellent work that might have deepened their approach. A case in point is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works, which Isaac Chotiner savages in words that could have been written about any number of these books:
What his book has to teach, and by example, is the fetishization of brain science, and the anxious need for easy answers to complex questions.
IMAGINE is a collection of stories—all pop-science these days must be translated into stories, as if readers, like children, cannot absorb the material any other way; but some of Lehrer’s stories do not necessarily support his thesis, and some of them contradict it.
…IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.
These books aren’t just self-help with a scientific gloss: they’re a form of anti-intellectualism emboldened by scientific pretense. And they’re rooted in the same sorts of motivations as anti-intellectualism associated with religious fundamentalism and political extremism: the need to believe that there is an easy and un-reflective path leading to final answers to big questions. What emboldens this brand of anti-intellectualism is its claim to have replaced fuzzy armchair theorizing with experimental rigor — a claim not in the least borne out by the laughable results.
– Wes Alwan