LifestyleJohann Hari’s Stolen Ideas

Johann Hari’s Stolen Ideas

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What do you get if you repeatedly plagiarise other people’s work, allegedly fabricate quotes, and spend hours of your life editing the Wikipedia pages of your rivals under an assumed name to make them look bad? Three massive book deals!

Johann Hari used to be a star columnist at The Independent, and popped up in numerous other publications. After his various misdeeds came to light in 2011, he briefly disappeared, then reinvented himself as a non-fiction author and highly successful TED Talk speaker.

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this transformation. He did, after all, apologise — after a fashion — for the plagiarism and the malicious editing. Perhaps he’s now a reformed character, worthy of rehabilitation. But as Jeremy Duns has pointed out, Hari has never provided a full account of everything he did wrong. His articles are still online without any flags from the newspapers that published them — and some of them make quite, well, surprising assertions.

But what if his books really are that good? They must have done something to earn such laudatory quotations and blurbs from varied luminaries including Hillary Clinton, Elton John, Russell Brand, George Monbiot, Glenn Greenwald and Tucker Carlson. On the back of all this support, and some heavy marketing, his books have been best-sellers.

Unfortunately, the books are not, in fact, that good. In his first, Chasing the Scream — in which he announced that “everything you know about addiction is wrong” — Hari hadn’t quite changed his ways. Even though he posted audio clips of his interviews online (a concession born of the ethical lapses he’d previously committed), actually listening to the clips revealed that, in very many cases, he seemed to be misconstruing what his interviewees said.

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The neuroscientist Dean Burnett wrote an exasperated critique of an extract from Hari’s second book, Lost Connections, which asked “is everything you know about depression wrong?” Hari’s condemnatory attitude to anti-depressant drugs, for example, wasn’t exactly nuanced, and he made some truly bizarre (and bizarrely untrue) points — for example that, “if your baby dies at 10am, your doctor can diagnose you with a mental illness at 10.01am and start drugging you straight away”.

Hari’s third book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, published yesterday, is not much better. Which is frustrating, because the phenomenon Hari addresses — the feeling that, with so many distractions around in the modern, online-centric world, it’s harder than ever to focus — is one many of us experience. Hari says that he and almost everyone around him feels this way, and describes a several-months-long “digital detox”, where he went to live in a small town on Cape Cod with no smartphone and no internet.

But that’s all anecdotal: does Hari actually present any evidence that shortening attention spans is a society-wide problem? There’s a study on how topics appear and disappear on Twitter more quickly now than a few years ago; some research on how many distractions office workers experience; and a dodgy-sounding but headline-ready statistic about how often we “touch our smartphones” each day (2,617 times, apparently).

It’s not until more than halfway through the book, page 176, that Hari drops what should be a bombshell: “We don’t have any long-term studies tracking changes in people’s ability to focus over time.” In other words, he quietly admits that there isn’t really any strong scientific evidence for the main thesis of the book. That’s despite how true the attention problem seems to many of us. It must be said that, on closer inspection, the people I know who complain the loudest about not being able to focus are people who have still managed to write tons of columns, scientific papers, or even books in the past years: even Hari mentions in passing that he wrote a 92,000-word novel while on his Cape Cod getaway, turning the story from an interesting self-help tale into a grotesque humblebrag.

Clearly, we need some better data to understand how deep and widespread an issue this actually is. But let’s give Hari the benefit of the doubt, and consider how he tries to explain the phenomenon.

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Most of the book is dedicated to the causes of our collective attentional problems. The first is, unoriginally, social media. Isn’t it very revealing, Hari writes, that there’s no button on Facebook that you can press to help you meet up with your friends in person? Facebook won’t, he says, “alert you to the physical proximity of somebody you might want to see in the real world”. Hari explains that the whole business model of social media precludes the encouragement of joys like looking your friends in the eye or giving them a hug, and instead is based on keeping you fixated on your screen, scrolling endlessly, never leaving the house.

Except Facebook does have exactly the feature that Hari claims doesn’t (and couldn’t) exist. It’s called “Nearby Friends”. It gives you a little map of where your friends are physically at that moment (if they have opted in). It’s been available since 2014. A two-second Google search would have enlightened Hari. Maybe he wrote that part of the book while he was in internet-free isolation.

The more you think about Hari’s objections to social media, the sillier they become: for years Facebook has been one of the main tools people use to arrange meet-ups and in-person events. It can and does introduce us to people who become our friends in real life. People don’t just use social media because we’re mindless drones, hoodwinked by Big Tech. But Hari barely mentions its benefits, and instead regurgitates (though thankfully, with citation) the catastrophic view put forward by many before him, including Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier.

Indeed, many of the other causes Hari identifies are rehashings of previous pop-science and pop-psychology books: we aren’t sleeping enough (Why We Sleep); kids don’t play outdoors any more (Free Range Kids and The Coddling of the American Mind); we don’t eat the right foods (a million diet books). Of course, it’s not a crime to write a book that doesn’t provide any new information. But Hari’s irritating, breathless style turns every single fact he “discovers” into a startling revelation, every single expert he speaks to into the absolute best in the world. Hari’s research — a series of interviews for a pop-psychology book — becomes an intense, globetrotting journey of personal discovery. His mind is so often blown that it’s little wonder it has such difficulty in paying attention.

It’s not just that Hari thinks he’s discovered earth-shaking new information. (As Dean Burnett wrote of Lost Connections, Hari “repeatedly presents well-known concepts and ideas … as fringe concepts that he’s discovered through his own efforts”.) He also thinks he’s a hard-nosed scientific truth-seeker. At the start of the book, he solemnly assures us that: “I studied social and political sciences at Cambridge University, where I got a rigorous training in how to read the studies these scientists publish [and] how to assess the evidence they put forward”.

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What makes this risible isn’t just that he’s touting his undergraduate degree as if it makes him an expert (a fairly substantial proportion of the population also have one). It’s that Stolen Focus exhibits no talent for assessing evidence. A few times there’s a small concession to a flaw in a study, or to the fact that scientists disagree on a point — but Hari fails to add any of the necessary uncertainty to his argument. After a cursory mention of the “other side,” he usually just blunders on regardless, assuming his argument is right.

The book builds up to Hari’s ultimate theory for why we have all these attentional problems: it’s capitalism itself! Our blinkered focus on economic growth, Hari writes, puts us in a rat-race that ruins the workings of our brains. We should abandon the idea of growth, he argues, and aim for what the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel calls a “steady-state economy”.

Never mind all the evidence for the benefits of economic growth in alleviating grinding poverty and hellish disease, particularly in the Global South. Never mind Hari’s own assertion that poverty can be another cause of attentional problems. What’s more important than the world making progress is that he, Johann, sometimes has a bit of trouble focussing on his next book.

Hari’s call to kill capitalism is not the only embarrassing, student-level politics in Stolen Focus. He thinks we should have an activist movement called “Attention Rebellion” to do, well, he never actually says what. He thinks we should nationalise Facebook — which would, to be fair, probably solve the problem of how distracting it is, by making it unusably slow and terrible.

When focused on the individual who is easily distracted, he does provide some realistic advice. But that includes things like: pre-commit to getting tasks done; use special software to restrict access to social media; get some decent sleep. It’s all pretty obvious (if, in many cases, easier said than done). With Hari, as was once said about Freud, “what is new in his theories is not true, and what is true in his theories is not new”.

And yet, despite all this, it seems that the media establishment — especially outside the UK, where his unethical past is less known — just can’t get enough of him. His first book is apparently being made into a documentary series presented by Samuel L. Jackson. And from what he’s said in interviews, more non-fiction is forthcoming — not to mention the Cape Cod novel. But this is a writer who’s shown himself again and again to be either untrustworthy, unoriginal, or uninformed. If he’s right to say that our moments of focus are becoming ever-more precious, isn’t it time we started paying attention to someone — anyone — else?

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2 Comments

  1. I didn’t know this back story, but I thought Lost Connections was very insightful, and he is very credible in his PR:

    https://open.spotify.com/episode/5vGQgHxUDx2KMhy34N2959?si=j…

    I always thought he had a strange way of being interviewed where he cites sources and studies for almost everything he says. I thought this was commendable at the time rather than putting a thin veneer on other peoples ideas. Maybe it was due to the past accusation of plagiarism.

  2. > then reinvented himself as a non-fiction author and highly successful TED Talk speaker.

    Unsure how much of prestige it is these days to be a TED speaker. I lost respect to them long ago, and stopped listening to their talks once I realize how much they filter, so you are never going to be sure whether you watch piece that is neutral, or some form of hit-piece or one-sided rant. Just recently they decided to remove Theranos' COE Elizabeth Holmes speech; it was a great talk, even given by person that (years later) been found guilty of fraud.

    I guess what I'm getting at, is that if you create a bullhorn for interesting people, don't start being politically correct; otherwise you may lose credibility. And audience.

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