Life is stupider than fiction: the Tsarnaev brothers

Should we feel good or bad that the trauma and heartache Boston suffered last week was apparently caused by two loser idiots?

I’ve just finished watching the first season of Homeland, where the terrorists are every bit as clever as the CIA and, in their own way, rather sympathetic.  If they weren’t, the show wouldn’t be watchable.  The Tsarnaev brothers are neither clever nor sympathetic and, as far as we know, weren’t pawns in the game of some Chechen mastermind. They were only smart enough to make some crude bombs and set them off.  Everything else about them was sheer pointless stupidity.

As far as I can tell, the brothers had no escape plan after the bombings; the younger one, at any rate, just went back to school at UMass Dartmouth, apparently confident that the investigative resources of the most powerful nation in the world wouldn’t find him.  When their photos were released, the brothers respond by hijacking a car, and they then: 1) let the driver escape; and 2) leave his cellphone in the car so the police can track them.  During the gunfight that follows, the younger brother manages to run over and kill his older brother, and then for some reason abandons the car and takes off on foot.  He finally decides to hide out in a boat in someone’s backyard, which simply delays the inevitable while he almost bleeds to death.

I suppose this doesn’t matter to the maimed; it surely doesn’t matter to the dead.  But I think some part of us wants a worthy adversary — the kind we see in the movies and on TV.  If we are going to be Boston Strong, we want to stand up to someone who is also strong.  Instead what we got was a pair of useless bums.

Jonah Lehrer: My high IQ made me do it

Jonah Lehrer — he of the self-plagiarism and fabricated Dylan quotes — tried to start rehabilitating himself last week, and it didn’t go well. He gave a speech and Q&A session at a seminar hosted by the Knight Foundation (which says “it supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism”).  In it he laid out what he perceived were the causes of his misdeeds and how he intends to make sure they don’t happen again.

As a journalist, the author of this entertaining Forbes article was not impressed.  This paragraph caught my eye:

The oddness of Lehrer’s thinking came into focus when he allowed himself to consider some of the factors that may have eased his way down the path of iniquity. One, he said, is his high intelligence. “For some cognitive biases, being smart, having a high IQ, can make you more vulnerable to them,” he said.

That’s really going to cause make Lehrer’s public feel sorry for him.

As a scientist, Jerry Coyne was not impressed.

When I was interviewed by Lehrer for his New Yorker story on E. O. Wilson, and saw the result, I sensed something amiss.  There was such a disconnect between the science I taught him and what came out on the page that I suspected Lehrer was more interested in making a big splash than in the scientific truth.  And, sure enough, truth has always taken a back seat to Lehrer’s self-promotion and desire to make a big splash at a young age.

In truth, and given the content of this speech, I sense that Lehrer is a bit of a sociopath.  Yes, shows of contrition are often phony, meant to convince a gullible public (as in Lance Armstrong’s case) that they’re good to go again. But Lehrer can’t even be bothered to fake an apology that sounds meaningful.  Call me uncharitable, but if I were a magazine editor, I’d never hire him; and we shouldn’t trust anything by him that’s not fact-checked by a legion of factotums. This is what happens when careerism trumps truth.

As a virtually unpaid fiction writer, though, I have to say I was impressed that Lehrer managed to get himself paid $20,000 for his little speech.

This whole thing makes it into my “Life is stupider than fiction” category–first, because Lehrer actually thinks he can rehabilitate his career by opining that his high intelligence was a cause of his problems.  And second, because he got some charitable journalism foundation to pay him twenty grand for his deep thoughts on his malfeasance.

Upon sober reflection, the Knight Foundation realizes it may have made a bit of a mistake here.

Controversial speakers should have platforms, but Knight Foundation should not have put itself into a position tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism. We regret our mistake.

The comments below their apology are not kind.

Rule #1: Don’t sleep with your biographer

A correspondent notes that if General Petraeus had read Senator, he wouldn’t be in this mess.

I have now added a “Life is stupider than fiction” category, but I don’t see how anything could top the Petraeus / West Point grad – Ph.D. student – jealous mistress / Tampa socialite – honorary Korean consul with a crazy twin sister and a bogus cancer charity / jealous FBI agent sending shirtless photos of himself / general with enough time on his hands to send thousands of emails story.

I know I wouldn’t be able to top it.