Celebrated Science Writer Visits Campus


Author: Daniel Arkin


A geological statistician cracks the Ontario scratch-ticket lottery. A recent college graduate gets lost in the bush in Nairobi and discovers that baboons get really stressed in social situations.

These aren’t short-story pitches or screenplay log-lines. They’re the subjects of just some of the reports writer Jonah Lehrer has filed for Wired, the popular science-and-tech magazine for which Lehrer serves as a contributing editor.

Lehrer — who also writes for The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, frequently appears on NPR and operates his own blog on the Wired site, The Frontal Cortex — spoke to a gathering of aspiring scribes and scientists last Thursday afternoon in Johnson 201.

At the lecture, co-sponsored by the English Writing and Cognitive Science departments, Lehrer explained the genesis of some of his high-profile articles, including a recent piece for The New Yorker on the decline of the scientific method and offered insight into his writing craft.

“It’s all about storytelling. I’m drawn to stories of process,” Lehrer said. “I’m drawn to how [scientists and researchers] find the facts.”

Although many of the subjects of Lehrer’s work — brain chemistry, disease and so forth — might, at first blush, seem impenetrably esoteric or technical, Lehrer is well-known for his accessible and clear approach.

“Even when [Lehrer] is presenting a complex scientific idea, he does so in a way that the reader can follow,” associate professor of English writing Julie Prebel said. “He explains all of his ‘big words,’ and there is a recognizable structure to his pieces.”

Lehrer, who double-majored in neuroscience and English at Columbia and was later a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, often thinks of his scientific writing in terms of literature. His recent New Yorker article, for example, was “framed as a detective story in which the reader doesn’t know everything up front.” The title of his first book is “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.” Lehrer refers to theoretical corollaries as “subplots.” Many of his Wired articles are phrased and paced like thrillers, others like quirky comedies.

Biochemistry major Michele Kanemori (senior) agrees that Lehrer “strikes a good balance between explaining the very hard scientific facts while remaining decipherable to average readers.”

Lehrer revealed that, during his editing process, he asks trusted friends to read over drafts and manuscripts and “mark the spots where it’s boring.”

In addition to the clarity of his prose, Lehrer’s articles reach an unusually wide audience because they are often linked to common sociological patterns.

In “How We Decide,” Lehrer’s recent book about the mental mechanics of decision-making, a section on the Wonderlic Personnel Test —an I.Q. exam given to professional football players upon being drafted —potentially appeals both to students of neuroscience and NFL junkies.

“Jonah Lehrer essays are always somehow ‘hip,’ whether in the focus of the topic or in the way he connects the science to contemporary culture,” Prebel said.

Despite the praise and adulation, — a throng of students, some of whom had read Lehrer’s work for Prebel’s class on science writing, surrounded the writer for over 30 minutes after his lecture — Lehrer remains humble.

“Becoming a  journalist was total luck.” 

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