Some recent events have managed to lodge in my neural driftnet, collecting together in a way that makes me think they’re related. When this happens, I can get preachy, so be forewarned.
In freshman writing this week, we were discussing the nature of the “academic conversation,” and at one point I (mostly, but probably not entirely accurately from memory) said, “In the end, the goal of the academic conversation is an exchange of ideas and viewpoints in order to arrive at the truth.”
Here I paused, looking at the students. For some reason I felt compelled to add: “That might sound quaint, or naïve, or silly, but it really is the goal.”
I wanted to kick myself in the ass right after I said this last part. It was like I felt compelled to apologize for believing not only that truth mattered, but that it could be achieved through conversation and collaboration. I felt as though I was telling them the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy liked to ride on the Loch Ness Monster’s back while waving at a herd of unicorns on the shore.
Even as the discussion marched on, part of my brain was wondering why I did this.
You’re thinking I’m about to talk about Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention, but no, first I want to talk about Jonah Lehrer.
Lehrer is the mostly disgraced former New Yorker staff writer, who was first dinged for “self-plagiarism,” a venial journalistic sin, before dipping into the harder stuff of fabrication, inventing Bob Dylan quotes for his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, and even engaging in a brief attempt at cover-up before caving and admitting the falsehoods.
In the wake of these revelations, Wired magazine, Lehrer’s original patron, commissioned a neutral third party review of Lehrer’s work for them, focusing on 18 of the 100’s of blog posts that Lehrer produced.
In his investigation, Charles Seife, a journalism professor and science writer, found issues in 17 out of 18 pieces. Following his investigation and an off-the-record conversation with Lehrer, Seife concludes “that Lehrer's journalistic moral compass is badly broken.”
He goes on to say:
I am convinced that Lehrer has a cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood. This shows not only in his attitude toward quotations but in some of the other details of his writing. And a journalist who repeatedly fails to correct errors when they're pointed out is, in my opinion, exhibiting reckless disregard for the truth.
Seife calls Lehrer’s transgressions “inexcusable,” but also says, “the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure.”
Seife describes how the system has changed between his time and Lehrer’s. (Seife, like me, is 10 years Lehrer’s senior.) When Seife was coming up, his work was “scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published.”
Lehrer, on the other hand, was operating “without a safety net.”
“Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.”
Okay, I’m definitely going to discuss Paul Ryan’s claim that he ran a sub three-hour marathon, a claim since admitted by Ryan (following an intense Internet crowdsourced investigation) as not being true (“walked back” in euphemistic politese) and that his one recorded marathon was much closer to four, rather than three hours.
No I’m not, I’m going to talk about the “Harvard Cheating Scandal” where 125 students are accused of sharing answers on a take-home exam. This is “nearly half” of the course’s total enrollment.
That barely audible sound you heard was the nation’s college instructors yawning with non-surprise at this news.
According to a Boston Globe report, in addition to the investigation and punishment of the guilty, “The university also plans to bolster its anti-cheating efforts by better educating students about academic ethics.”
The accused students are pushing back, claiming that a course previously viewed as one of the easiest on campus became suddenly difficult. They say the tests were confusing and unfair, unevenly graded by the 10 teaching assistants assigned to the course.
The core of their defense, as summarized by The New York Times: “The students said they do not doubt that some people in the class did things that were obviously prohibited, like working together in writing test answers. But they said that some of the conduct now being condemned was taken for granted in the course, on previous tests and in previous years.”
Just a brief mention here about the Romney campaign ad that claims the Obama administration “gutted” welfare reform. The ad is so misleading that even in a “post-truth” campaign the normal false equivalence practices of our major media is breaking down and calling lies lies, rather than falling back on tortured euphemisms like politicians being “on the edge of truth.”
Not long ago Lance Armstrong gave up his fight against allegations of systematic doping without admitting guilt. It’s true, Armstrong never failed a drug test, but numerous former teammates have testified to the pervasive use of performance enhancers during the era. In the words of sportswriter Bonnie Ford, summarizing the soon-to-be published account of former Armstrong lieutenant Tyler Hamilton, “Cheating occurred on such a massive scale, in such mundane packaging, that it receded into the landscape and became almost invisible.”
Again, according to Ford, “Hamilton -- likely joined by most of the top riders of his time -- viewed Armstrong's morality as no different than that of other riders. In Hamilton's telling, Armstrong just executed better, on the bike, in the pharmaceutical realm, and in securing protected status from the governing body of his sport: He trained hard, stayed on the leading edge of the curve of doping expertise, succeeded in having a positive test covered up. He profited hugely where others went broke.”
If Armstrong wasn’t doping, he was the only top flight cyclist not doing so, and somehow also beat everyone else who was doping at the same time.
The New York Times recently reported on a man named Todd Rutherford who saw a marketplace opportunity in providing five star customer reviews for books he hadn’t read. According to the Times, “Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.”
In the words of the article’s author, David Streitfeld, “Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth.”
The article quotes an email from a self-published author named Roland Hughes, who “spent about $20,000 on review services.”
His goal: To go from, " 'being an author' to ‘being a recognized author.’ ”
If I were trying to lure you in with a hook, I would call this epidemic of dishonesty a crisis, except it’s the longest lasting, slowest developing crisis in the history of crises.
It’s only a crisis if human nature is a crisis. The temptation towards shortcuts to success dates back to a certain guy who had an interesting encounter with an apple and a serpent.
While much hay will probably be made of Paul Ryan’s imaginary marathon prowess, he’s guilty of something all of us have done in an effort to impress an audience. He was bragging. His audience just happens to be bigger and paying much closer attention.
Far more troublesome is the laundry list of lies contained in his convention speech, lies so egregious and obvious that they speak to something beyond the ways we fall short of truth, in that they suggest that the truth doesn’t really matter. The moral compass is not faulty, it is non-existent.
It was postmodern theorists who posited there was no such thing as truth, certainly not of the objective variety. We seem to be putting this notion to the test by daring to speak falsehoods that everyone knows are lies, even as they’re being spoken. Most of Ryan’s lies in his speech had already been discussed and debunked and yet he spoke them anyway.
Politicians seem immune from punishment for lying because lying is what politicians do. After Ryan’s speech, Wolf Blitzer of CNN said to his co-host Erin Burnett: “He (Ryan) delivered a powerful speech. Erin, a powerful speech. Although I marked at least seven or eight points I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward, I’m sure they will. As far as Mitt Romney’s campaign is concerned, Paul Ryan on this night delivered.”
Is Wolf Blitzer, a journalist at a national news network he wasn’t qualified to report on the truth?
His co-anchor, Burnett replied: “That’s right. Certainly so. We were jotting down points. There will be issues with some of the facts. But it motivated people. He’s a man who says I care deeply about every single word. I want to do a good job. And he delivered on that. Precise, clear, and passionate.”
Can we really be that mad at Jonah Lehrer?
What further interests me are the causes and justifications for these acts. The obvious rationale for lying about your political opponent is that the stakes are so high, everything must be done in pursuit of victory.
For Lance Armstrong, it appears to be a literal case of “everyone else is doing it.” He just managed to do it a little better, besting the competition on all fronts.
I imagine something similar is at work in the Harvard scandal. The fear of being disadvantaged on the exam would become so great, that even the normally moral would succumb to the temptations of the dark side. Sure, they say, we probably stepped over a line or two, but they were lines everyone knew we were stepping over, so what’s the big deal?
The fledgling authors look at a landscape where it seems nearly impossible to draw attention to one’s work. Why not a shortcut? It’s just another form of marketing. The “illusion of truth.”
Jonah Lehrer either never knew or didn’t care if there was a line. If he was operating without a safety net, it’s because he didn’t think he needed one, and he didn’t until he realized what was heading towards him was a snare, not a net.
I’m pleased to see that Jonah Lehrer has been caught and discredited, that his own magazine believed in the truth enough to investigate further, even as I'm certain he will return to prominence as a journalist in the not-too-distant future.
Likewise for Lance Armstrong. I don’t know that it’s pleasure I feel at these revelations, but it feels like justice. We can look at his career with clearer eyes, and still marvel at the accomplishments, but also know more fully where they are rooted.
If Harvard thinks that educating students about academic ethics is going to impact cheating at their university, they are kidding themselves. They’re also nuts to think they can give a take-home exam to hundreds of students. As with fact checkers at magazines who save sloppy or dishonest journalists from themselves, it’s silly to design a course in a way that encourages and incentivizes cheating. Did they think it wouldn’t happen because they’re Harvard?
I think it’s more likely to happen because they’re Harvard. If Harvard is it all like any other university, I can guarantee that where cheating is made possible, cheating is done, and there is very little guilt over it.
At the heart of all of these things, I think, is good, old-fashioned greed.
Maybe if we start naming things for what they are, we can get back to a place where truth is valued and recognizable and believed in.
These are all stories of greed: for attention, or grades, or money, or power, or some combination of all of them. Even as economic security becomes tougher to achieve for more and more people, we find ourselves in a kind of “wealth worship,” where being a good journalist isn’t good enough if you can be a famous one, where we decide that we can run three-hour marathons instead of four, where we feel we deserve our A’s, or our good reviews or the Presidency of the United States.
I sometimes read about how the current generation has been ruined by the self-esteem movement, but they can hardly be blamed with their role models, champions who cheat, politicians who lie, journalists who don't believe there is such a thing as truth.
Or a teacher who is worried about looking like a square when he says he believes in truth. All of us are signaling that there’s nothing much worthy of belief aside from our own “success,” our image, and how we’re perceived on some imaginary scoreboard.
These are all forms of cowardice, a lack of trust in ourselves and others, that we will not be judged of value unless we are perfect, if we are anything short of outstanding.
Twitter is neither better nor worse than any other medium for conveying truths: @biblioracle