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Johann Hari’s stolen ideas There's little new evidence in his latest book

Do I have your attention? (Bret Hartman / TED)

Do I have your attention? (Bret Hartman / TED)


January 7, 2022   6 mins

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.

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.

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”.

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?


Stuart Ritchie is a psychologist and a Lecturer in the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London

StuartJRitchie

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Simon Melville
Simon Melville
2 years ago

Johann? Is that you?

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Melville

Said comment did me the best belly laugh so far today though.

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Melville

Hahaha

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

The reason why Hari has been able to be rehabilitated is because he’s a leftist. The left does not object to lying to further the cause of leftism. In fact, it approves of it.
Compare Stephen Schneider’s quote about climate scientists having to choose between being honest and being effective; if you have to lie to sell the message, well, that’s just a choice. Peter Gleick stole papers from the Heartland Institute, then released them along with a forged one. He subsequently admitted the theft and still works in climate science. He chose to be dishonest.
Hari is likewise doing what the left expects, so it’s fine. When you’re as impeccably moral as the left, and when your views are unquestionably the right ones, it’s legitimate to lie and deceive to get people to swallow them. They’ll thank you in the end.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Good analyses there Mr Redman. Despite arguable encouragement from the Holy Bible in places like Matt 10:16 & 1 Cor 9:22 , I often wonder if we on the Left take the idea of the white lie too far. Still, as even conservatives like His Holy Father Pope Benedict admit (Caritas in veritate) that without Love, truth is unbearable.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Spot on. A glance at any Independent headline will confirm your final paragraph.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

The reason why Hari has been able to be rehabilitated is because he’s a leftist. The left does not object to lying to further the cause of leftism. In fact, it approves of it.

Wikipedia: “In politics, a noble lie is a myth or untruth, often, but not invariably, of a religious nature, knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda. ”
So, if you hold a social agenda dearly the nobility of the lie excuses the lie – or the need for rehabilitation?

clare.gibb
clare.gibb
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

To be fair, the issue is on both sides. Boris Johnson has also be rather more rehabilitated by the Right after being fired for lying by the Telegraph….

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
2 years ago

Hari is a prime slimeball. Readers outside the UK should be enlightened.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

“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.”
Wow, what a list of endorsements. That should warn anybody off from reading him

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

Here is another article I have saved myself reading by looking at the comments, which as often is the case are enjoyable, pithily direct and accurately informative.
Of course, Hari will get a pass from people who probably thought he was unlucky to be caught out the first time.

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Good grief. I missed that. Incredible.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Here are many comments I have saved myself reading by looking at this comment, thank you JB. I had always thought Johann Hari was less a titan and more a Titanic.

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago

One of his gems is that if rats are in a bare box and offered heroin they will take it. If they are given a playground they will refuse heroin.
Blimey, Hari solves the problem of addiction in two sentences.

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago

I don’t get what the issue is with Hari rehabilitating himself, its up to people to choose if they listen/buy his stuff. That said, he is a class A bullshitter. The whole premise of AA, or any 12 step programme is that it recognises that addiction is a loss of connection with others and with a higher power. To present this as a new idea, and get away with it shows the gullibility andd stupidity of people
But can we blame Hari for that?

The cure for all these neuroses is of course organised religion, Catholicism in particular.

On the attention economy more broadly I’d recommend “Stand out of our light” by James Williams, a short but interesting book by a former Google engineer turned Oxford philosopher. I wouldn’t be bothered with Hari’s book.

Last edited 2 years ago by Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Kevin Casey
Kevin Casey
2 years ago

Thanks for the James William book recommendation, I just downloaded it for free as a PDF

Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Casey

Cool. Hope you find it interesting

Last edited 2 years ago by Annemarie Ni Dhalaigh
Milos Bingles
Milos Bingles
2 years ago

“What do you get if you repeatedly plagiarise other people’s work, allegedly fabricate quotes,”
Do you become Prime Minister and continue to lie and cheat and defraud the British public?

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

“I had forgot the fart” Attributed to Queen Elizabeth Ist.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

‘Recollections may vary’ – “We have not forgotten thy fart” after an absense from Her court of 7 years but His name escapes me – as so much does these days.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

“…he wrote a 92,000-word novel while on his Cape Cod getaway” – God help us. Expensive fire lighters.

achtung56
achtung56
2 years ago

Golly, that’s a nasty little article, especially considering most people won’t have any idea who Hari is. It feels like there is a personal grudge in there somewhere.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  achtung56

Why is it nasty? It is critical, and provides plenty of evidence.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago

Thank you for a great (and well cited) article Stuart.
I’d heard about the plagiarism before, but, prior to following your links, hadn’t realised how odious this individual is.
Is unfathomable to me how this “guy” has been rehabilitated, let alone keep getting book deals.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

Hari is one of the reasons I stopped reading The Independent.

Charlie Walker
Charlie Walker
2 years ago

Never heard of him!
Sounds like I’ve dodged a bullet there

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