Saturday, September 1, 2012

Three questions about Jonah Lehrer

So, the saga of Jonah Lehrer has kept trundling on, now with the publication in Slate of this article, where NYU Journalism professor Charles Seife describes what he discovered when he was asked by the editors of Wired to look into Jonah Lehrer's past blog posts for evidence of "journalistic malfeasance," including plagiarism, recycling (self plagiarism), "press-release plagiarism," misrepresentation of quotes, and misrepresentation of facts.

The article is a must read if you have any interest at all in journalism, science, and/or schadenfreude.

For the past few years, Lehrer was the wunderkind of popular science writing. He was Malcolm Gladwell with a better haircut. Then, about a month ago, Michael C. Moynihan published this piece (also a must read, for all the same reasons), where he described his discovery that many of the quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in Lehrer's most recent book, Imagine, were actually fabricated. More disturbingly, Moynihan described how Lehrer "stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied" to him when confronted with the fabrications.

The Moynihan piece followed on from some grumblings about Lehrer's journalism, when it was pointed out that an that he wrote for the New Yorker was largely recycled from something he had previously written for the Wall Street Journal.

As I understand things, recycling is a fairly minor journalistic crime. It is not really misrepresentation, since you are still presenting your own material as your own. It is a bit of a violation of trust of the readers of the New Yorker, but if they had not read the Wall Street Journal piece, maybe there was little harm. And, I suspect that the overlap between New Yorker readers and WSJ readers is fairly small. The two entities that Lehrer actually screwed over were the New Yorker, who presumably thought that they were paying him for new material, and the Wall Street Journal, who presumably had some expectation that they were paying him for exclusive rights to the article.

The recycling prompted people to start looking more closely at Lehrer's record, though, where they found a much more diverse and serious set of "journalistic malfeasances." It seems that Lehrer is an egregious cherry picker, sifting through papers to find studies that support his thesis, irrespective of the quality of those studies or the existence of other studies that contradict it. He also apparently has a serious quotation problem, splicing together frankenquotes from different sources, presenting quotes gathered by other people as if he had gathered them himself, and when a convenient quote did not exist (or would require actual effort to discover), simply making quotes up. Furthermore, when specific errors were pointed out to him, he would nevertheless republish those same "errors" again and again. (Again, for the details, read Seife and Moynihan.)

I use quotation marks here because, while an original error might have been an actual error, in the sense of being an honest mistake, once you know it's wrong, and you keep putting it out there, it becomes something different. A candidate word would be "lie."

To me, the whole Lehrer fiasco raises three questions:

1. WTF?

I mean, look, this is a whole lot of crazy behavior. It reminds me of those movies, like Big or 13 Going on 30, where a kid suddenly wakes up in the body of an adult and finds themselves in way over their head. Except instead of teaching all of the other adults around them to reconnect with their inner child, they spin totally out of control and devolve into a murderous, narcissistic pathological liar.

Maybe sort of like what you would get if you cast Linday Lohan in a mashup of Freaky Friday and Carrie.

2. Who is to blame?

Sure, the obvious answer here is Jonah Lehrer. Curiously, Charles Seife's article ends with this conclusion:
Lehrer's transgressions are inexcusable—but I can't help but think that the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure. I'm 10 years older than Lehrer, and unlike him, my contemporaries and I had all of our work scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published. When we screwed up, there was likely someone to catch it and save us (public) embarrassment. And if someone violated journalistic ethics, it was more likely to be caught early in his career—allowing him the chance either to reform and recover or to slink off to another career without being humiliated on the national stage. No such luck for Lehrer; he rose to the very top in a flash, and despite having his work published by major media companies, he was operating, most of the time, without a safety net. Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.
My twitter feed was full of responses along these lines of "You don't need formal training to know that lying is wrong." Agreed. If the only thing keeping most journalists from acting like Lehrer is the threat of a grumpy, old, cigar-chomping editor telling them to shape up (and then offering them a swig of whiskey from the flask they keep in the bottom drawer of their desk), we're all in a lot of trouble.

(If you want to see a real psychopathic maestro at work, read this classic piece on Stephen Glass, who fabricated whole stories, and concocted elaborate schemes to fool his editors.)

On the other hand, there is something real here. The current trend in journalism is to cut down on editors and fact-checkers, increasingly relying on the competence and honesty of individual reporters. This might have important implications for how we evaluate journalism in the future. In the past, publications had reputations, but maybe in the future, journalistic reputations will be more personal. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

3: How is it that Jonah Lehrer has not yet been hired as a speechwriter for the Romney campaign?

Seriously, this guy has it all. Cherry-picking facts, making up other facts, bald-faced lying when confronted about it. In fact, I'm a little bit surprised he's not on the ticket. Sure, Paul Ryan may have those dreamy blue eyes, but Jonah Lehrer's glasses are so cool, he doesn't even need eyes!


  1. "How is it that Jonah Lehrer has not yet been hired as a speechwriter for the Romney campaign?"

    Why does Jon Wilkins presume that no Romney supporters read his stuff?

  2. Jon Wilkins does not presume that. He merely ponders the question.