Putting a hard line between art, science, commerce, and creativity

Putting a hard line between art, science, commerce, and creativity

Earlier this summer I read a book by Jonah Lehrer called Imagine: How Creativity Works after reading a snippet of the book in a magazine or on a blog. Read the whole thing, loved it, recommended it to friends. And then a few weeks ago the world finds out that Lehrer did a very bad thing by making up or improperly smashing together quotes from Bob Dylan in said book.

It called all of the facts in the book into question (and since then people have found other errors in other chapters) and rightly cost Lehrer his job at the New Yorker and the respect of fellow writers and readers. I still think there are some good aspects of the book, but I recognize now that the conclusions have to be taken more as Lehrer’s conjectures or opinions.

In reading all the linked blog posts about this scandal, I came across this review of the book, published many months before said scandal. This was held up as an example of people calling shenanigans on Lehrer long before the Bob Dylan stuff was revealed. But as I read the review, I found it to be full of a huge dose of bullshit as well as what seems a real personal anger at Lehrer and all writers like him[1]:

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[2].

Lehrer does not see creativity or imagination as being intricately connected to art, or to science, or to anything that we would generally term “imaginative.” It is all about success. … Lehrer’s unwillingness to distinguish between these types of thinking, between art, science, and commerce, is discouraging. Inside or outside, the only place that finally interests Lehrer is the marketplace. …the problem of differentiating between artistic distinction and commercial distinction is especially problematic here. …if you are trying to explain the most ambitious and the most admirable exertions of human imagination and intelligence, some disaggregation, some discrimination, is necessary.

To start, I disagree with Isaac Chotiner’s assessment of Lehrer’s points and that all that interests him is the marketplace.

I heavily contest that one has to distinguish between art, science and commerce when in a discussion of creative thinking.

I always think of the book A Beautiful Mind when stuff like this comes up. It’s about the life of John Forbes Nash, the brilliant mathematician who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia for many years. In the prologue, the author recounts a day when a friend of Nash’s came to visit him in the hospital.

The friend asked: “How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof… believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages?”

Nash’s answer: “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

As a writer, I often get flashes of insight or inspiration that seem to come from a part of my brain not entirely connected to the conscious part I’m aware of. I love when this happens because it usually leads to great stories. When I read that quote I realized for the first time that this happens to scientists as well.

Not that all great scientific discoveries are the result of this, but that ideas that then collide with your knowledge, understanding and experience come from a part of the mind that’s not readily accessible (like memory) happens not just to artists was very eye-opening for me. It made me realize that art and science aren’t on opposite ends of a spectrum.

Thus, I roll my eyes at Mr. Chotiner and his disdain for narrative and his assertion that just can mix up art and science and commerce and stuff because REASONS.

Whatever Lehrer’s crimes with this book, this isn’t one of them.



  1. I found that many journalists and older writers had a huge hate hard-on for Lehrer for years. They are way too gleeful over his downfall.[]
  2. Dude, narrative is a building block of our culture. It’s not just for children. If you don’t understand that, how can I trust you to review books, even of the non-fiction variety?[]