The morning before he quit his job at the New Yorker because he allegedly had plagiarized materials for his magazine pieces and allegedly made up quotes from Bob Dylan for his book Imagine, Jonah Lehrer gave the keynote speech during the opening general session of Meeting Professionals International's World Education Congress, which took place in St. Louis this week. He was there to discuss the need for human interaction to a crowd of about 2,200 people whose job it is to bring people together. I was there as a member of the press; I have covered the meetings industry for almost 18 years for Meetings & Conventions magazine.
I enjoyed Lehrer's speech, but could relate to one tweet from the crowd, "You know you're getting old when the keynote looks 15."
Midway through, though, my antenna went up. Talking about how technology allows us to work in isolation, which perhaps makes us yearn for that human interaction,Lehrer said that since the invention of Skype, attendance at meetings had risen 30 percent. Now, from 1996 to 2008, I compiled our magazine's Meetings Market Report, a statistic-filled compendium of attendee data, spending data and more. Having watched our industry get slammed following 9/11, and again during the economic downturn, and knowing that the gains our industry have made in the past few years have been gentle, that 30 percent he quoted, without any attribution, gave me pause. I tweeted: "since invention of Skype, attendance at meetings up 30%? Where'd that stat come from?????" It just felt wrong.
I hadn't planned to avail myself of the opportunity to speak with Lehrer that was being offered after the speech. Generally, I don't really care who the motivational speaker is (such speakers tend to raise my cynical journalistic hackles); I go to this convention to speak to meeting planner attendees (our main readers) about what they're experiencing in their workplaces and to find out how we can serve them better. But I wanted to know where that statistic came from, so I headed back to the press room as soon as the general session was over.
Three of us ended up around a small table, very informally, to chat with Lehrer. He sat rather primly, looking at us with his piercing eyes through owlish glasses, ready to take some questions. When my turn came, I asked where the statistic had come from. "From a conversation with a Harvard professor who has done some research on this," he said.
I did not have a chance to follow that question up right away, but once the little conclave broke up, I walked over to Lehrer and asked him what the name of the Harvard professor was. He said, "I'd have to ask him if it's all right to tell you." I handed my card to him and said, "Please ask, and then let me know." I had the feeling I had just thrown my card in the garbage.
He could not substantiate that 30 percent rise in attendance to me. I understand the desire to find a statistic like that: It feels good, you want it to be right -- you want face-to-face meetings to grow out of our need to connect. Is it possible there's a Harvard professor studying technology in the workplace and attendance at meetings? Yes. Is it possible the statistic is true? Sure (but, obviously, I doubt it). In my opinion, however, if you're going to put a statistic like that in a speech to 2,200 people, it needs a solid source. Because you're going to be called on it.
After my brief conversation with Lehrer, I tweeted this: "'Since invention of Skype, attendance at meetings up 30%' stat came from convo w/ Harvard researcher. Not solid stat."
And I wasn't that surprised the next morning when he resigned.