Reviewing “Imagine: How Creativity Works”

Once upon a time, I wrote virtually everything that appeared at the Wages of Wins Journal.  And for awhile I was writing something everyday.  Lately, though, I only write something once a week (at least, most weeks).  Plus those posts tend to be written for Freakonomics and the Huffington Post.

Although I don’t write much anymore, I do read the Wages of Wins Journal.  I especially read all the comments.   And every once in awhile, I leave a comment or two.  Surprisingly (at least to me), some of my comments get taken down because they are too snarky for Andres Alvarez.  Yes, some of my comments at the Wages of Wins Journal have been deleted. Perhaps I should take the outer reaches of the Internet to complain about censoring at the WoW Journal Journal :)

Since I am not writing much anymore, I am free to pursue other interests.  Some of those interests involve writing in other forms beyond blogging (books, journal articles, the five papers being presented at the Western Economic Association in a few days).  And sometimes I actually do some reading.

One book I read recently inspired me to start writing a brief book review (since people take the time to review my books, I feel I should start taking the time to comment on what I read).  Before I could write out my thoughts, though, I was made aware of two more reviews on the same book.  And so rather than write just write a review of the book, I thought I would comment on the reviews of the book, if that makes sense.

The book I am talking about is the latest from Jonah Lehrer.  In Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer takes on research that I didn’t know existed.  As someone involved in research I have had a few “lightbulb” moments.  Specifically, I have had moments where suddenly a solution to a problem suddenly appeared in my mind.  This process seems quite magical when it happens.  And magic is not something we think of as easily explained by science.

It turns out, though, that there is research that looks at these moments.  And it also turns out, these moments really ain’t magic.  Seeing this research led me to conclude that Lehrer’s latest isn’t just an interesting book, it is an important book.  In other words, it is a book that I think can actually help me do better research as I age (and apparently, age doesn’t help one do research – which makes me a bit unhappy).

I am not the only one to be impressed by this book.  Michiko Kakutani – of the New York Times – also offered a glowing review.  And this review offers quite a few details about the stories told in the book (and I encourage everyone to read this review for those details).

Christopher Chabris, though, had a very different impression.  In “Boggle the Mind”, Chabris explains why he was most unhappy with Imagine.

In his review, Chabris attacks

  • the quality of Lehrer’s writing
  • the conclusions Lehrer reaches
  • how Lehrer explains academic research
  • the “facts” Lehrer reports

Chabris even includes a swipe at Malcolm Gladwell and tells us that Lehrer has an ugly dog.

Okay, he never mentioned Lehrer’s dog.  But Chabris was clearly not happy with this book.  And much of what he said was more than a bit “snarky”.

Here is what I think happened.  Unlike me, Chabris – a psychology professor — probably is quite familiar with the research Lehrer cites.  So unlike me, he probably was not impressed by the book’s subject matter (we tend not to be impressed when we read stuff we “know”).  Furthermore (and this is not uncommon among academics), Chabris believes his interpretation of the academic literature is “correct” and those who disagree must be – by definition – “incorrect”.

Despite how Chabris responded to this book (and I should note, Lehrer did respond to this review), I still would label Lehrer’s book as both interesting and important.  And I would defend what Lehrer has done.  Specifically, I asked Lehrer if the research he cites is from peer reviewed journals.  He assured me that this was the case.

For me, that is the standard I want journalists to follow.  Journalists who cover an academic subject should focus on what appears in academic peer-reviewed journals.  If a journalist does this (and both Gladwell and Lehrer tend to take this approach) then I think academics need to be a bit less snarky in their reactions.

Yes, we get it. Journalists are not going to interpret the academic literature in exactly the way each academic would prefer (and the same can be said when academics look at the writings of other academics).  But as long as they are not telling us that what they read on some blog is some sort of authorative analysis, I think we need to sit back and enjoy the story-telling.

Because contrary to what Chabris argues, Lehrer’s book is well-written and entertaining. And again, I think this research is important.  At least, that’s what I imagine.

-Dave

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