Why The Rehabilitation Of Plagiarist Johann Hari Is Irresponsible & Dangerous

Despite repeated incidents of journalistic plagiarism, Johann Hari is back. Joe Muggs argues that we should be wary of his celebrity-endorsed new book about mental health rammed with dubious 'facts'

I come from a family of medics and scientists and grew up well schooled in how statistics are abused and research misrepresented. Which is why, much as one likes to laugh off preposterous nonsense, it’s hard to keep a lid on it when disgraced liar and plagiarist Johann Hari burst back on to the scene with Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression – And The Unexpected Solutions, a book full of absolutely unadulterated woo, and gets plaudits and props from everyone from Hillary Clinton to Elton John, John McDonnell to your mate on Facebook who has reposted that Guardian article that says OMG EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT DEPRESSION IS WRONG!!!!1 Now I haven’t read the book, and I’m not fucking going to. now you don’t need to read it either, as this guy has performed the public service of taking it to pieces page-by-page. It’s more than enough to have seen the extracts, seen the ghastly adverts that suggest that Hari has miraculously upended the entirety of human understanding of mental illness and can actually HELP YOU, DEPRESSED PERSON, RIGHT NOW, IF YOU BUY HIS BOOK, and heard him repeat the claim over and over again that antidepressants don’t work for "between 65 and 80% of people" who take them. It does not matter now if there’s anything of value in the book at all: the big ideas that his current publicity drive are selling are out there, and hundreds of thousands of people are seeing and sharing the suggestions that 1) the mental health establishment is lying and only Johann can reveal the truth and 2) that antidepressants don’t work.

This conspiracy theory stuff is of course thoroughly discredited.

By neuroscientists. By a dude who painstakingly tracked down the source of Hari’s uncited "65-80%" claim. By bloggers who are able to take apart his methods in about 20 seconds flat. And it’s been rightly pointed out that the strong overtone of "accepting mental health treatment makes you complicit with neoliberalism" is politically nasty, too.

This is dangerous. People with mental illnesses and particularly depression will grasp at straws, because, well, who doesn’t want a solution to feeling like absolute shit all the time? Who doesn’t want to believe that there’s something better than a pill that stabilises your mood but leaves you in a fug? And yes big pharma has done bad things, yes the medical establishment over-diagnoses (these are very well-established, and very well-discussed things, Hari is breaking no ground on this front). But when people actually stop taking their meds based on deeply dubious and/or uncheckable figures cited by someone famous for stealing vast chunks of other people’s work, lying about his own life history and viciously smearing his critics by altering their Wikipedia entries, inevitably bad things are going to happen.

But it’s too late isn’t it? It doesn’t matter now, because the awful, toxic – BUT HIGHLY CLICKABLE – message that he’s selling is out there. And he’s put it out there by sheer force of celebrity. You’d almost have to admire his hustle if it wasn’t so rotten. A combination of aggro – he once threatened to use the legal department of The Independent against a blogger friend of mine, purely for suggesting it might be a bad idea for him to get a reputation for making things up – and smarm has, over the years, left him insulated from critics and with an increasingly ‘impressive’ set of influential patrons. His former colleague Suzanne Moore recalls that she’d tried to help him when he hit rock bottom after the extent of his plagiarism and machinations: she invited him to stay with her family, and offered advice and counsel, including to give up journalism and take up teaching or something similar. "But then," she says "all those rich people like Elton John came and rescued him… and now this [his new fame]!"

With the likes of Elton John and Russell Brand on board to waft his words in front of millions of eyes on clouds of expensively perfumed hot air, his ability to bullshit to the masses was guaranteed. He cultivated his anti-establishment credentials, too, of course: if "RustyRockets" wasn’t rebellious enough, he inveigled his way into the affections of Noam Chomsky, someone he’d previously theatrically "feuded" with, getting on board. One can’t help wondering if this book review, one of the most obsequious pieces of writing of all time, helped butter up the old prof. Lo and behold, gushing quotes from Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Glenn Greenwald, as well as Sir Elton, appeared on Chasing The Scream, his comeback book about addiction.

I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of that book here; suffice to say, I’ve worked with and interviewed quite a few researchers into the use and effects of drugs, legal and illegal, and what Hari presents in it as radical ideas is a hodge-podge of other people’s research put together into something that was by turns half-baked and half the story, and (like his new bullshit) veers frequently into dangerous territory, which he really made his own with his execrable 2015 TED Talk. As with his colleague Brand, he ultimately boils the complexities of addiction down into some very woolly "all you need is love" guff, which if followed through by impressionable drug users could lead to some deeply harmful behaviour. But, of course, marketing and celebrity won the day. Though there are dozens of great books about drugs – and about mental health – out there, Hari’s relentless hustle means that it’s his that get the headlines, clicks and shares. I have heard of journalists who got the Hari DM-slide this time round asking "could you endorse my book", and no doubt he can rely on a few old friends to write soft-soap profiles minimising his former misdemeanours and bigging up his latest hodgepodge of arrant bosh as brave and groundbreaking – as with Decca Aitkenhead’s shocking soft-soap profile of him for The Observer on his initial comeback. (Telling, incidentally, that this profile was reposted, with added slimy headline about "Talented Journalist Johann Hari", on that bastion of alt-media post-truth, Alternet).

But it’s not really Hari I’m mad at. It’s everything. It’s us. It’s all of our inability to counter this bollocks before it’s become commonplace. Of course, there’s a meme that says it better than I ever could.

Is post-truth just what we are now? Are the Toby Youngs and Johann Haris – the plagiarisers and lickspittles who grease their way through the attention economy, getting so much celebrity endorsement that people just assume they must have something of value to say – the archetype for the modern media operator? Is Hari, like those other predatory peddlars of poisonous woo, Gwyneth Paltrow and David ‘Avocado’ Wolff, destined to shape the debate on mental health? I hope not. I so, so hope not. And in my bloody-minded way, I hope that rigorous research methods and understanding of the scientific method can spread. Of course that comes with the awful baggage of the "skeptic community" being riddled with nu-atheist Dawkins Bros with their various varieties of grotesque baggage – but actually teaching people at large the methods they need to assess truthfulness and sources is very different to the haranguing that passes for "debunking" in those circles.

I know many great people working to improve scientific literacy, not least my brother, a geneticist, who has an occasional sideline in helping educators explain scientific principles to budding journalists in plain language. It’s too late to stop Hari earning stupid money from his slapdash wank and big-name brown-nosing, potentially fucking up a few people’s mental health in the process, but maybe this can be a trigger for just a few of us to sharpen the tools that we need to counter the next big "everything you know is wrong" conspiracy-monger. To be ready to react by bigging up those who deserve to be heard on the given topic (on mental health, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile Or Die, Will Davies’ The Happiness Industry, Eleanor Morgan’s Anxiety For Beginners, or Emily Reynolds’s A Beginners Guide To Losing Your Mind – hat tip to Dan Hancox for that list, BTW). To just, in our own tiny way, face post-truth with some truth, and more importantly still than that, with the tools to find the truth? I mean, we might as well, right? Otherwise we truly are fucked.

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