Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sometimes the story is the thing

"The most common lie is that which one lies to himself; lying to others is relatively an exception."
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Confusion and debate have gripped science journalism since July 30, when the talented and much-praised science writer Jonah Lehrer resigned his position with The New Yorker after admitting he had fabricated quotes. Why Lehrer would do such a thing — especially since the quotes he fabricated were attributed to Bob Dylan, whose every word is pored over by fans — remains a mystery.

Several interesting articles have followed. A Language Log post by linguist Mark Liberman posited that Lehrer's "unquotations" were not materially different from those of New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm or, in fact, any number of other journalists; in a subsequent post, he discussed the continuing controversy and law suit surrounding alleged misquotes and mistakes in a New Yorker article by scientist Jared Diamond.

On Friday financial blogger Felix Salmon* contributed his view that Lehrer's fabrication is of a piece with the nonsense contained in contemporary TED talks. TED (short for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a series of live events that grew from one annual conference about "ideas worth spreading" to an endless series of events of diminishing quality. While I don't entirely agree with Salmon's conflation of Lehrer and TED, I wholeheartedly agree with his inspiration — Evgeny Morozov's "The Naked and The TED," a brilliant take-down in The New Republic about three jargon-filled, fatuous and fact-free books from TED's new publishing arm.

All of this made me sorry about the state of ideas and storytelling. Storytelling is all the rage in business nowadays — people have rediscovered the concept that context, quotes and examples make information more memorable. Unfortunately, most corporate storytelling is terrible stuff that might actually benefit from some fabricated quotes.

TED was once a forum for brilliant storytelling by people with high-quality minds. Sadly, those days seem to be gone. So, in memoriam, I present here my three all-time favorite TED talks. None makes a scientific case; all are about experience; each is unforgettable.

Sometimes the story is the thing.

"There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."
~ Ursula K. LeGuin

In the first, neuroanatomist and brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor talks about her "Stroke of Insight" — what it felt like when she had a stroke and experienced it as a scientific observer as well as a person in the grips of a life-threatening medical crisis. This 18-minute-plus talk will have you at the edge of your seat.

My second pick is "The 4 a.m. Mystery" by the extraordinarily clever monologist Rives. This one is only 8 minutes long and so entertaining, you'll want to watch it more than once. 

My third choice is conductor Benjamin Zander's talk on "The Transformative Power of Classical Music." Zander believes that classical music has the power to leave us all "with shining eyes". Watch this talk and he will have you convinced. 

"Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts."
~ Salman Rushdie

* Felix Salmon and I work for the same company, apparently in the same office building. I don't know him.


  1. Worth writing. Worth reading. I have the same feeling about many online writing courses taught by professional writers who -- are no longer making any money writing. They sell their name then offer Crap!

  2. Thanks, Diane. It seems to me there is never a shortage of bad advice, especially for a fee. But if you're looking for good advice about nonfiction writing, try Poynter (not cheap, but good) and the Nieman Foundation's narrative journalism site -