21 Jun The Paradox of Self-Plagiarism
About six months ago, I happened upon a Jonah Lehrer article in Wired. The article starts out with a couple of paragraphs about a drug company whose stock shot up because they had developed a drug that stopped the body from producing the “bad fat”. This was pretty important to the drug company as their drug Lipitor (which stopped the “bad fat” from clogging arteries) was about to go off patent. In order for the drug company to thrive it needed a new, even more innovative, drug. This drug was in a phase 3 trial and was considered a shoe in for approval. However, a couple of days later they realized that vast numbers of people on the drug were having massive heart attacks….. oops.
It was the next section that really won me over. He went on to discuss the fact that despite the fact that there are over 200 studies that show no direct causation between herniated discs and back pain (and the fact that there are exactly NONE that show a causation) the medical community carries out tens of billions of dollars of surgery a year to fix this non problem. I was painfully aware of this issue as I have had my own bouts with extreme pain AND my partners and I are working on a film about Dr. John Sarno, who has been trying to get the medical community to pay attention to this fact for decades.
The point of the article (and the point of many different articles that Mr. Lehrer writes) was that as a culture we often fall prey to a belief in false causation. This becomes increasingly common as we become more and more focused in specialized ways and fail to see the forest for the trees so to speak. We have specialists that are so specialized they no longer are aware of the complex interactions of complex systems. Pain specialists work on stopping pain but many have lost the ability to think outside of their very specific fields. I immediately looked up Mr. Lehrer on Facebook and found that we had a mutual friend, my twin brother who is a social psychologist. I reached out to Mr. Lehrer about appearing in our doc to make the connection between our tendency towards false causation and its relationship to back pain. He was gracious, but busy, and we have not been able to meet up yet.
In the meantime, I realized that I had read a lot of other articles by Mr. Lehrer without realizing they had been written by him. I remembered all of them because they all circumnavigated around similar themes; themes that I also grapple with in my work. When I read his recent book, “Imagine,” I knew that we had to include him our film in a major way. Our film, “Story of Pain,” is about …. pain, as an industry, and idea, and a social science conundrum. Dr. Sarno’s work revolves around his understanding that the vast majority of the pain epidemic in America is not based on structural issues (like herniated discs, torn rotator cuffs, etc) but instead it is based on repressed emotions, especially rage. People often get confused and think that he is arguing that the pain is, “all in our heads”. The pain is astoundingly real, however its genesis is rarely a structural problem, but instead an interaction between the mind and the autonomic nervous system. His cure involves primarily education about the syndrome, and he has incredible levels of success. However, I was shocked to see that Jonah Lehrer was writing about these studies because it seems as if no one else had put two and two together. In my journey to understand this issue I also met Dr. Dennis Turk in Seattle. He showed me a chart that tracked the cost of chronic pain over the last 25 years. In 1986 it was 56 Billion (similar to cancer and heart disease). By 2001 that number had grown to 211 billion (dwarfing cancer and heart disease combined). By 2011 the number grew to 636 Billion. This growth does not make sense if the explanation for the pain is structural. Yet no one is willing to question the medical science of “treating” herniated discs despite the fact the the science shows no correlation.
Today one of my filmmaking partners forwarded me a gawker article that was attacking Lehrer for “self-plagiarizing.” The main claim seems to be that parts of some of his blog posts for the New Yorker were almost the same as parts he had written on other blogs like the Wall Street Journal. As the kerfuffle expanded there were further charges that “Imagine” was largely a re-tread of previous articles he had written. While on one level I can see that Mr. Lehrer appears to have not played by the exacting rules of the journalism industry by not referencing the articles in the book, I can also see that what we are looking at is a body of work in progress. I read all of the articles that made their way into the book. However, in reading the book I felt like I had an advantage in having fore knowledge of many of the ideas. These ideas built upon each other and reading them in the context of a book their value multiplied and the ideas became more solid. I can also understand that better attribution might have been valuable. However, to insinuate that the fact that these works had published as articles as the ideas came together somehow diminishes the value of the finished work is disingenuous. I would be surprised if parts of this book were used in the next book.
I’m a filmmaker. Currently I’m working on two films that seem to intersect. One, “Conception”, is about nature vs. nurture issues. The other is “Story of Pain” mentioned above. Recently I was struggling with the fact that certain things that I was filming could be used in both films. My partners and I had a “revelation” that the films should be joined into one intensely complex project. We then realized that it wouldn’t work, but that we might use the same footage in different contexts in both films. I guess that would be self-plagiarism. Is Robert Rauschenberg self-plagiarizing when he uses the same images in multiple projects or is he self-referencing.
I look forward to interviewing Jonah Lehrer for BOTH films because his insightful look at the way in which our minds process information is in line with the core themes of both films. Very few people can connect the dots in the way that he can. I guess it’s not surprising that someone whose work quietly devastates the foundation of whole industries and academic fields might suffer some slings and arrows.