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Jonah Lehrer resigns
July 30, 2012 11:05 AM   Subscribe


 
Plagiarizers and fabricators are scumbags. This guy = great big scumbag.
posted by Edison Carter at 11:09 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't believe he stayed on after that whole plagiarizing thing.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:10 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


So Dylan in fact loves people asking him about the meaning of his songs?
posted by Egg Shen at 11:10 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also revealed: Elizabeth Kolbert has a swastika tattooed on her back, and Simon Rich isn't actually funny.
posted by theodolite at 11:11 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is exactly why I never leap on the Next Great Author/Book/Movie/TV show. Let it age for a while and if people still like it, I'll check it out.

Saves loads of time.
posted by DU at 11:13 AM on July 30, 2012 [11 favorites]


Something's happening, but you don't know what is, do you Mister Jones Lehrer?
posted by Rangeboy at 11:13 AM on July 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


Guess the pig has something new to complain about.
posted by Egg Shen at 11:14 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm confused about the plagiarizing your own stuff thing.
posted by josher71 at 11:15 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, your cache link points to the down website.
posted by DU at 11:15 AM on July 30, 2012


Plagiarizers and fabricators are scumbags. This guy = great big scumbag.

Which plagiarizer and fabricator is the scumbag? Dylan or Lehrer?

Me, I am basking in the irony.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:16 AM on July 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


Ouch. I suspect we won't be hearing as much of Jonah on the CBC pretty soon.

(I know freelancer panic. Freelancer panic is a good friend of mine. This goes a little beyond freelancer panic.)
posted by maudlin at 11:16 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


And just when he'd found the perfect bikini for it, too.
posted by kyrademon at 11:17 AM on July 30, 2012 [21 favorites]


I'm confused about the plagiarizing your own stuff thing.

Plagiarism, in this case, is a shorthand for "selling old work as new work." Sometimes that's acceptable. Generally, it's not.
posted by muddgirl at 11:17 AM on July 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Whatever happened to reverence for truth?
posted by uraniumwilly at 11:17 AM on July 30, 2012


In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall...
posted by swift at 11:18 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall...


Cite?
posted by maudlin at 11:19 AM on July 30, 2012 [20 favorites]


Also, WTF?? Aren't non-fiction books freaking fact-checked? Isn't this the last, glorious argument in favor of protecting 'old media' - that they are crucial (albeit expensive) gatekeepers which ensure quality and/or accuracy?
posted by muddgirl at 11:19 AM on July 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


Relabel the book as fiction and he is good to go.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:20 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Plagiarism, in this case, is a shorthand for "selling old work as new work." Sometimes that's acceptable. Generally, it's not.

For example:

Another lawsuit (Fantasy, Inc. v. Fogerty) claimed that "The Old Man Down The Road" shared the same chorus as "Run Through the Jungle" (a song from Fogerty's days with Creedence to which Fantasy Records had owned the publishing rights). Fogerty ultimately won his case when he proved that the two songs were wholly distinct compositions. Fogerty then countersued for attorney fees (Fogerty v. Fantasy) and won the case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
posted by Egg Shen at 11:22 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


There really can't be any such thing as "self-plagiarism." Plagiarism is passing off someone else's words as your own. If you are passing off your own words as your own, well, they are. Muddgirl identified the real problem: selling old word as new. But there are plenty of useful terms to describe that naughtiness. We don't need to make up nonsense words like "self-plagiarism."
posted by Longtime Listener at 11:24 AM on July 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


I understand the temptation to do something like this, to either take a shortcut or to want to pack an emotional punch that the facts do not warrant. However, I don't understand doing of it at the expense of worrying constantly that, in the day of the internet, someone is going to hunt me down some day and make me look like an idiot on the internet. So not worth it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:24 AM on July 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, so what? Dylan made up all that shit about the Rain Man too.

Two cures my black ass.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 11:25 AM on July 30, 2012


Right. He shoulda been fired last month for copy-pasting his old work and passig it off as new to the frickin' New Yorker.

That said, I appreciated the honesty -- and the rawness -- of his mea culpa.

Checks out as 100% not plagiarized on copyscape, too.
posted by notyou at 11:25 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


There really can't be any such thing as "self-plagiarism." Plagiarism is passing off someone else's words as your own.

This is correct - he was engaged in garden variety fraud, which is somehow even more pathetic.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:27 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


But there are plenty of useful terms to describe that naughtiness. We don't need to make up nonsense words like "self-plagiarism."

People want you to know, though, that this was super naughty, and some of the already available vocabulary doesn't carry that punch. We tend to do this with other sorts of things, as well, if we want to smuggle in ethical connotations without always arguing to the point by a longer way around. It's often a shortcut to rounding up indignation.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:28 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


and some of the already available vocabulary doesn't carry that punch.

On preview, though, I suppose fraud might do it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:28 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, your cache link points to the down website.

Tablet Magazine says they're suffering a DDOS attack.
posted by homunculus at 11:28 AM on July 30, 2012


Now I'm not confused anymore!!!
posted by josher71 at 11:29 AM on July 30, 2012


muddgirl: " Plagiarism, in this case, is a shorthand for "selling old work as new work." Sometimes that's acceptable. Generally, it's not."

To expand on this a little, one of the concerns (other than that he was recycling his old blog content and presenting it as new,) was whether he was violating copyright. Say he has an article published in the WSJ. They own the rights to reprinting. If he reprints paragraphs but not the entire article, without indicating that material had previously been published, does that violate the Journal's copyright?
posted by zarq at 11:31 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, it's kind of arrogant to quote one's self, but,
I don't trust Jonah Lehrer to get science right.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:44 AM on February 25
posted by benito.strauss at 11:32 AM on July 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


SpacemanStix, I'd say "fraud" is an excellent, concise term for expressing the wrongness of what he did.
posted by Longtime Listener at 11:33 AM on July 30, 2012


Plagiarizers and fabricators are scumbags. This guy = great big scumbag.

I feel more sad than anything else, and am unable to fire up enough self-righteous indignation to call a writer a "scumbag".

Lehrer made a huge mistake. He doesn't work for the New Yorker any more. How pitifully sad is that?

Bob Dylan has seen much worse, and I quote "One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes"
posted by KokuRyu at 11:33 AM on July 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


The publication I work for doesn't allow writers to republish previously copyrighted work verbatim, although they are allowed to rework it. Ditto if they want to publish elsewhere something they've written for us, which we own the rights to (those words, in that exact order).
posted by vickyverky at 11:34 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


benito.strauss: "Well, it's kind of arrogant to quote one's self, but,"

Don't worry. You're in good company. :D
posted by zarq at 11:34 AM on July 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


The unnecessariness is what gets me. I can at least understand fake memoirs or lying to get published -- but this? Putting your entire career and reputation on the line out of sheer laziness? Madness.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 11:35 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


They laughed at my essayist technique of citing "here's stuff I'm pretty sure Bob Dylan probably thought one time or another, based on listening to his albums just really a lot in college" but it doesn't look so bad now does it?
posted by nanojath at 11:36 AM on July 30, 2012 [14 favorites]


You wouldn't self-plagiarize your car.
posted by fleacircus at 11:36 AM on July 30, 2012 [34 favorites]


We don't need to make up nonsense words like "self-plagiarism."
It's not a made-up nonsense word. It's an actual term that's been around for a while, at least in academic circles. (I can't speak to regular publishing.)
posted by smirkette at 11:38 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh; next thing you know he'll claim he has the Strat Dylan played at Newport '65.
posted by TedW at 11:38 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


As Bob Dylan said, 'shakespeherian is an upstanding gentleman and would never self-plagiarize your car.'
posted by shakespeherian at 11:38 AM on July 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


I pity the poor immigrant fool.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:38 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lehrer made a huge mistake. He doesn't work for the New Yorker any more. How pitifully sad is that?

I'm not particularly sad . Writers who employ "lazy" techniques like Lehrer aren't usually one-time offenders. They generally have been pulling "mistakes" like this from a pretty young age. He's lucky that he's gotten this far.
posted by muddgirl at 11:39 AM on July 30, 2012 [20 favorites]


Putting your entire career and reputation on the line out of sheer laziness? Madness.
As a former high school teacher, I can attest that a fair number of adolescents will do incredibly stupid things with serious long-term ramifications out of laziness. I would not be surprised that many adults do as well. Hell, I'm incredibly lazy about certain aspects of my life. I'm more shocked at his audaciousness.
posted by smirkette at 11:41 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


My assumption about this, as it is with most things like it, is that he's been doing this sort of thing since high school or college and getting away with it, which eventually leads to a carelessness which is mistakable for audacity.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:43 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The unnecessariness is what gets me.

The thing is that it's been clear for quite a while already that Lehrer is repeatedly, casually intellectually dishonest, both about the evidence he presents for his glib claims and about things like plagiarism. This new story, particularly his thin-air fabrication of the screenings of unreleased extended interviews for No Direction Home, just provides us with compelling evidence that he is so dishonest out of some kind of deep ethical ignorance or self-delusion, not malevolence; the casual lying and fabrication seems to come about because he's unaware what intellectual honesty is in the first place.
posted by RogerB at 11:44 AM on July 30, 2012 [11 favorites]


Man, I'm going to have to listen to this guy yammering on RadioLab about how a catscan showed why his brain did this to him, aren't I?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:45 AM on July 30, 2012 [17 favorites]


Writers who employ "lazy" techniques like Lehrer aren't usually one-time offenders. They generally have been pulling "mistakes" like this from a pretty young age. He's lucky that he's gotten this far.

Yeah, life ain't fair, that's for sure, and most of the non-fiction writers who end up in the New Yorker have pretty impressive pedigrees, but Roger Angell does a great job about writing about baseball, so who cares if he's related to Katharine and EB White?

The New Yorker is for some writers the pinnacle of writing. To have achieved a staff writer position and then loose it due to what is probably some sort of compulsive behaviour or even mild mental illness is truly pitiful.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:45 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


The problem is that people read his fucking book and then shit like these fabricated Dylan quotes end up a part of the popular knowledge. And I don't care about the quotes -- I care about all of the other lies and misrepresentations in everything else he's ever written. I don't believe for a second that the one thing he got caught on is the one time he's ever made shit up.

So: Fuck him. He's polluted the pool. People read his book because they wanted to learn. Now they have bad facts. And, worse, they don't know which facts are bad. And if those bad facts aren't corrected, they run the risk of becoming popular and leading to all sorts of other problems. Reputable voices can battle wrong-but-popular facts their entire lives and it's a waste of everyone's time and energy.

Lehrer's not an academic. He's clearly not trustworthy. He shouldn't be writing for any reputable publication or publisher. Time to start another career.
posted by chasing at 11:48 AM on July 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


But anyone who buys books by non-academics about "creativity" (books aimed at a popular audience, usually business people) shouldn't be fooling themselves: books by writers like Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell are not serious, offer no true insights, and are the business equivalent of beach reading.

So, no real loss here, no harm, no foul.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:48 AM on July 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm torn, because I hate plagiarisers and Dylan almost equally.
posted by Decani at 11:48 AM on July 30, 2012 [15 favorites]


And people have been making up stuff about Dylan since the start of his career. No big deal.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:49 AM on July 30, 2012


Yes, let's spend more time talking about how talking about this is a waste of time!
posted by muddgirl at 11:51 AM on July 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Writers who employ "lazy" techniques like Lehrer aren't usually one-time offenders. They generally have been pulling "mistakes" like this from a pretty young age. He's lucky that he's gotten this far.

Guess whose entire work output is going to be evaluated with a fine-toothed comb in the coming weeks.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:53 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


If only Albert Goldman were alive to enjoy this.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 11:55 AM on July 30, 2012


But anyone who buys books by non-academics about "creativity" (books aimed at a popular audience, usually business people) shouldn't be fooling themselves: books by writers like Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell are not serious, offer no true insights, and are the business equivalent of beach reading.

So, no real loss here, no harm, no foul.


Absolutely wrong. There is nothing wrong with writing books about "creativity" or any other scientific subject that aim to be accessible by average readers. I wish ten times as many such books were written each year.

But it's so critical that the authors be trustworthy, because you (the reader) really just have to trust that the person behind the keyboard writing that book isn't lying to you, since it can be hard to detect fraud if you're not involved with the subject.

And if people become trained to think each mainstream book about science is going to be full of lies and bad info, then they'll stop reading those books, and -- yes -- that will be a major loss.

Loss. Harm. Foul.
posted by chasing at 11:56 AM on July 30, 2012 [31 favorites]


For what it's worth, How We Decide was a pretty fantastic book; hardly Gadwell-drive-by-thinking. Unfortunately, I'm now skeptical how much was actually legit / Lehrer's own work.
posted by jkolko at 11:59 AM on July 30, 2012


Then read a book by an expert. A book by Stephen Jay Gould or Oliver Sachs or Atul Gawande is a million times more interesting than a pop book by this Lehrer fellow or Susan Orlean.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:59 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


But anyone who buys books by non-academics about "creativity" (books aimed at a popular audience, usually business people) shouldn't be fooling themselves: books by writers like Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell are not serious, offer no true insights, and are the business equivalent of beach reading.


I couldn't disagree more.

Believe it or not, non-academics still manage to use serious facts to promote serious conclusions that are accepted into popular discourse (perhaps even more quickly because they aren't academics) and influence more than business people.

You used Malcolm Gladwell as an example; surely you're aware of the influence his books have had alone?
posted by Avenger50 at 11:59 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Then read a book by an expert. A book by Stephen Jay Gould or Oliver Sachs or Atul Gawande is a million times more interesting than a pop book by this Lehrer fellow or Susan Orlean.

You're right, everyone who bought Imagine deserved to be lied to. They should've read a Stephen Jay Gould book instead. They deserve to be punished for their ignorance with... more ignorance.
posted by chasing at 12:04 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why the Susan Orlean dis, KokoRyu? Just wondering if there is some sort of Orleans-related issue out their floating around that I am not aware of. I haven't read her Rin Tin Tin book, but I've heard good things and I don't think you need a canine expert to write about the legacy of a movie star dog.
posted by Falconetti at 12:04 PM on July 30, 2012


Then read a book by an expert. A book by Stephen Jay Gould or Oliver Sachs or Atul Gawande is a million times more interesting

Appeal to authority. Stephen Jay Gould should only be considered an expert in his field (geology and paleontology). Outside those fields his writings (which are numerous) should be little different than Lehrer's or Orleans'.
posted by muddgirl at 12:08 PM on July 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


Back into the whale with him.
posted by unSane at 12:10 PM on July 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


And people have been making up stuff about Dylan since the start of his career.

Chief among them Bobby Zimmerman himself.
posted by dubold at 12:10 PM on July 30, 2012 [12 favorites]


You're right, everyone who bought Imagine deserved to be lied to.

Well I disagree with this sentiment (it's hard to tell on the Internet when someone is being sarcastic or when they are being serious). At the same time, just how valuable are the insights of a generalist like Lehrer anyway, even if he did use "the facts"?

I've worked in communications for nearly ten years on the industry/government side of things, and it's pretty amazing how badly stuff gets reported. Names are misspelled. Facts are wrong. Assumptions are made.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:10 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu: "But anyone who buys books by non-academics about "creativity" (books aimed at a popular audience, usually business people) shouldn't be fooling themselves: books by writers like Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell are not serious, offer no true insights, and are the business equivalent of beach reading."

(Emphasis mine.)

Don't agree with you about Gladwell, who excels at presenting a concept and showing not only how it can be used in multiple applications but also why it can prove advantageous to do so. Just because something is aimed at a business audience (and I would argue that Gladwell's work is not) does not mean it's unworthy of being read, or worse, has no redeeming value.

His writing style may put some people off, but the lessons he's conveying are often very much worth reading and studying. And kudos to him for doing so in a way that can be more easily understood by the masses, without condescending to them.
posted by zarq at 12:11 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Outside those fields his writings (which are numerous) should be little different than Lehrer's or Orleans'.

Well, SJD was (he died a while ago) is a trained scientist. We're not just talking about knowledge of facts and figures, we're also talking about interpretation of knowledge.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:12 PM on July 30, 2012


So, Jonah Lehrer...

How does it feel?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:13 PM on July 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't see how a degree in geology, say, prevents any of those things from occurring. Or is the argument that only the original author of the study gets to write any popular reporting on it? That seems quite unwieldy.

I am not pro-bad-pop-science. I am anti-ivory-towerism.

We're not just talking about knowledge of facts and figures, we're also talking about interpretation of knowledge.

Ah, so physicists who are climate change deniers should be trusted on the issue of climate science than any non-scientists?
posted by muddgirl at 12:13 PM on July 30, 2012


Anyway, I'm sensing quite a lot of anger here about Lehrer, some of which is starting to get directed at me! I'm going to bow out of this thread.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:14 PM on July 30, 2012


muddgirl: " Appeal to authority. Stephen Jay Gould should only be considered an expert in his field (geology and paleontology). Outside those fields his writings (which are numerous) should be little different than Lehrer's or Orleans'."

Above all, Gould was a scientist. His writings on myriad topics were nearly all presented from that perspective, and arguably that was as much his expertise as paleontology. For example, the man never played professional baseball, but his writings about the sport from a scientific pov were inspired and fascinating.
posted by zarq at 12:16 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I feel compelled to note that I'm not sad, angry, or surprised. Self-promoting fakers are going to make things up. The best we can do is detect them and prevent them from profiting off their fraud. That includes rejecting apologist arguments which allow such people to continue to profit.
posted by muddgirl at 12:17 PM on July 30, 2012


muddgirl: " Ah, so physicists who are climate change deniers should be trusted on the issue of climate science than any non-scientists?"

Trust is a relative term. If they're presenting a cogent, logical argument, then they should at least be considered someone who isn't a total whacko arguing purely from a partisan perspective, yes. That doesn't mean we should trust anyone blindly, especially when it comes to science.
posted by zarq at 12:19 PM on July 30, 2012


For example, the man never played professional baseball, but his writings about the sport from a scientific pov were inspired and fascinating.

I'm not arguing that a scientific perspective is value-less. I'm arguing (a)a scientific degree is not the only way to learn to look at things scientifically, and (b) many scientists I know are strangely non-rational about some subjects - for example religion, evolutionary psychology, feminism, civil rights, etc. So I reject two notions (although it's possible that I misinterpreted KokuRyu's intent): (a) The only people who can write well about science are scientists, and (b) the writing/opinion of scientists on any subject should be more trusted than the writing/opinion of non-scientists.

If they're presenting a cogent, logical argument, then they should at least be considered someone who isn't a total whacko arguing purely from a partisan perspective, yes.

Shouldn't I extend anyone presenting a cogent, logical argument the same consideration? Why not?
posted by muddgirl at 12:21 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Bloody hell, and I *just* bought the kindle version. I wonder if they'll refund me since I've not cracked the electronic binding yet.
posted by Mooski at 12:21 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Good. If there's one thing I can't fucking stand, it's cheaters. Nothing grinds my gears like watching someone casually lie and cheat their way through life and get away with it. I'm glad this guy got caught, and I'm glad he's suffering consequences. I hope he never gets a job in writing again. Fuck him and fuck cheaters.

Angry all the time? Why do you ask?
posted by Scientist at 12:22 PM on July 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


Imagine is currently trending at #105 on Amazon. I wonder if that's a bump due to morbid curiosity, or if it's been up there since its release. NYT says there have been 200,000 copies sold since its March release-- so I'm guessing morbid curiosity?
posted by charmcityblues at 12:29 PM on July 30, 2012


Mr. Narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me. My story could be his songs. I'm his soldier child.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:32 PM on July 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


muddgirl: " I'm not arguing that a scientific perspective is value-less. I'm arguing (a)a scientific degree is not the only way to learn to look at things scientifically, and (b) many scientists I know are strangely non-rational about some subjects - for example religion, evolutionary psychology, feminism, civil rights, etc.

Agreed.

So I reject two notions (although it's possible that I misinterpreted KokuRyu's intent): (a) The only people who can write well about science are scientists, and (b) the writing/opinion of scientists on any subject should be more trusted than the writing/opinion of non-scientists.

There's that word again. Trust. Kokoryu didn't use it. And I don't see it implied in his comment. I don't think kokoryu was saying that scientists are more trustworthy on any subject.

I could be wrong, though. Perhaps I'm just missing it. Could I trouble you to please point out where he did?

Chasing used it, but with regard to academics, not scientists.

Anyway, I'm a non-scientist who writes regularly about science, medicine and scientific topics, for press consumption. I wouldn't argue "A" at all.

Shouldn't I extend anyone presenting a cogent, logical argument the same consideration? Why not?"

I don't know. I can't speak for you. I don't trust anyone blindly, if that's what you're asking. I don't think anyone else should either.

I can tell you that I'm a lot more likely to listen more closely and respectfully to someone who I feel is presenting an objective, non-partisan argument and supporting it with additional information. That's not the same as saying that I trust them to never lie to me.
posted by zarq at 12:38 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Who the hell can understand what Dylan is saying anyway?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:38 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who the hell can understand what Dylan is saying anyway?

I get Ozzy to provide translations.

Those translations are then provided to me, via subtitles.
posted by Dark Messiah at 12:41 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


What really aggravates me is that the guy just completely took a shit in the pool with this book, just to save himself some intellectual labor. Now this fraudulent book is out there, and even if bookstores immediately pull it off the shelves, there's no rolling back the misinformation. In his own small, petty way, he's made the world an incrementally worse place. So yeah, fuck this guy. I dearly hope to never see his name in print again.

Also? Fuck his apology. I'd be content if these guys, when exposed, just quietly slunk off to the underside of the nearest rock instead of issuing any kind of statement. They sure are great at coming up with forthright, graceful, super-duper honest apologies once they've been caught.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 12:41 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


And people have been making up stuff about Dylan since the start of his career.

including Dylan. I seem to recall him saying his parents were dead in early interviews. The difference here, of course, is that a certain kind of artist is free to make shit up -- it's the game they're playing. But if your books are going into the non-fiction section, you're not playing that game.
posted by philip-random at 12:43 PM on July 30, 2012


Also, WTF?? Aren't non-fiction books freaking fact-checked? Isn't this the last, glorious argument in favor of protecting 'old media' - that they are crucial (albeit expensive) gatekeepers which ensure quality and/or accuracy?

It's one of the arguments for letting old media die--that it's really not any more interested in quality or accuracy than, say, Examiner.com. I myself am a big fan of old media, and so I'm in the "Jonah Lehrer is a scumbag" camp. By his action he has further discredited old media.
posted by scratch at 12:43 PM on July 30, 2012


This is exactly why I never leap on the Next Great Author/Book/Movie/TV show. Let it age for a while and if people still like it, I'll check it out.

This has always been my technique. I read a lot of classics, then check every few years to see what of the last 20 years has survived. I've just been too disappointed by modern works to give them the benefit of the doubt. Why read 1Q84 or Freedom today if they'll be just as good in a decade?

Same with good journalism. I read two great articles on sea wrecks linked here on the blue a while back, one was fairly new, one a few years old. I have a New Yorker from last year with some pieces I want to read but haven't had time for, sitting here on my coffee table.

What's the rush? To comment during the first wave? I don't want to comment. To enjoy the same way others enjoy? Pleasure is not to be coerced.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:45 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I myself am a big fan of old media, and so I'm in the "Jonah Lehrer is a scumbag" camp. By his action he has further discredited old media.

I guess my point was that maybe we should hold Houghton Mifflin Harcourt responsible as well. We're not even in the realm of some other pomo-nonfiction writers who make claims of reporting from personal impression or what-have-you. These are quotes made by a public figure. Either check them or don't sell the book.
posted by muddgirl at 12:47 PM on July 30, 2012


What's the rush? To comment during the first wave?

Honestly I find it helpful to read the New Yorker, or at least peruse the table of contents relatively promptly as the new issues come out, purely so that I recognize when people I talk to are feeding me their secondhand "knowledge" based purely on an article they just read. Since that one magazine by itself contributes such an alarmingly large portion of the background noise of our "intellectual" life in the US, it's useful to be aware of what it's feeding you just as a screening device, apart from whatever interest its content actually may have.
posted by RogerB at 12:53 PM on July 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


I seem to recall him saying his parents were dead in early interviews.

From his mother's 2000 obituary:

To dispel rumors that there was friction between Dylan and his parents, Dave Zimmerman, Dylan's younger brother, told the Minneapolis Star in 1972: ''The friction between Bobby and my parents has been exaggerated all out of proportion. There isn't any kid who at one time or another hasn't had differences with his parents. I mean, that's what's going on everywhere now, isn't it?''

Mother Shen has suffered many disappointments in me. But my telling people she's dead has not been among them.
posted by Egg Shen at 12:55 PM on July 30, 2012


This is exactly why I never leap on the Next Great Author/Book/Movie/TV show. Let it age for a while and if people still like it, I'll check it out.

I know a few people that do this. Part of the joy, for me, of consuming pop culture while it's popular are the conversations that it generates with my friends. I feel like this sort of wait-and-see attitude definitely loses out on that - particularly with stuff that is constantly generating new content, like a TV series. But even things like popular books, if a friend says to me "Hey, you should read this book, it's awesome" and I don't read it for 3-4 years, and then go back and say to them "You were so right! It was awesome! Remember this part that happened 1/3 of the way through the book?" - chances are they're not going to remember.
posted by antifuse at 12:58 PM on July 30, 2012


Hey, Ironmouth: BOB! DYLAN! WROTEPROPAGANDASONGS!
posted by mc2000 at 1:00 PM on July 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


And also - I tend to enjoy stuff that other people don't necessarily like, or that people look back and say "Ugh, who LIKED that?" - so if I waited around to see if stuff is still being enjoyed years later, I would definitely be missing out on the enjoyment of those things in the moment, for fear that other people don't like them any more. MANY of the things I enjoyed greatly as a younger man don't hold up very well over time (I derived much joy from seasons 1 and 2 of The Simpsons when they aired, for example)
posted by antifuse at 1:00 PM on July 30, 2012


Your smarter fabricators pick people who are dead and can't contradict their made-up facts.
posted by tommasz at 1:01 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


These are quotes made by a public figure. Either check them or don't sell the book.

Publishers barely pay for copyediting, much less fact-checking. Books involving high-profile, litigious people or entities will be fact-checked -- but even then, the publisher will try to push the cost off onto the author if at all possible. In all other cases, publishers just stick some boilerplate in the contract, stating that the author warrants the truth of any quotations, statements of fact, etc., and holds harmless the publisher blah blah blah. I'm pretty sure Lehrer's contract falls into the latter category.

The sad fact is, most magazines are far better fact-checked than the average non-fiction book.
posted by dogrose at 1:06 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


My favorite part is his "I'm so special" fairy-tale that he made up to explain the quotes--he got to look at raw Scorese footage. Never gonna happen, pal. Never, never, never.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:07 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


And now Imagine is gone from Amazon. And so the mighty fall.

I feel for his wife and particularly his daughter, who is now too young to know anything other than perhaps that her father is unhappy, but who will grow up and Google and see all the crappy things people have said about her father.
posted by charmcityblues at 1:12 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, WTF?? Aren't non-fiction books freaking fact-checked? Isn't this the last, glorious argument in favor of protecting 'old media' - that they are crucial (albeit expensive) gatekeepers which ensure quality and/or accuracy?

I was (but am no longer) a non-fiction book editor. Book publishers, in general, are extremely lean companies, and employ the fewest people possible. They do not employ fact-checkers. They rely on promises made to them by authors that their work is original and true, on the past history of the authors, and on the editors and copyeditors to know their fields well enough to smell out when things aren't right. Editorial staff do not have the time to fact check everything. If there's something they're concerned about, they'll query the author ("This doesn't sound like Dylan to me, and I can't find it after a quick google. What's the source?"), but this doesn't work if a) the author convincingly lies about said source, or b) the made up bit doesn't trip an editor's alarms.

A number of reasons I was given for why fact checking is not considered a priority: a) plagiarism and deception of this kind are relatively rare, b) we put out much more content than a magazine and yet have a smaller staff and thus a fact-checking operation would be nearly impossible, c) books primarily belong to their authors and not to the publisher, therefore it is the author's responsibility to ensure truthfulness and accuracy.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:12 PM on July 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


I love this:

The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes.

I feel as if "did not exist" has to mean, "I sucked them out of my finger." (As opposed to "did not exist [in my book]," since why would someone be asking about them in that case.?) So sly, the way he sneaks the one totally damning possibility in first, and in language vague enough to make it almost vanish, and then buries it in the bullshitty tricolon crescendo.
posted by BibiRose at 1:13 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]



And now Imagine is gone from Amazon. And so the mighty fall.

I feel for his wife and particularly his daughter, who is now too young to know anything other than perhaps that her father is unhappy, but who will grow up and Google and see all the crappy things people have said about her father.


Maybe by the time the kid grows up, people like him and Stephen Glass, James Frey and the guy who plagiarized Martin Amis will all be considered the éminence grises of some Ivy-league literary fraud club, and she'll be able to dine out on it. Or else people will not remember it at all.
posted by BibiRose at 1:20 PM on July 30, 2012


A number of reasons I was given for why fact checking is not considered a priority:

...so basically there's no reason to "trust" a non-fiction book published by a Big Press more than a self-published one (let's say, from the same author)? That is frankly surprising to me and now I feel a bit like I've been a rube.
posted by muddgirl at 1:23 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


but who will grow up and Google and see all the crappy things people have said about her father.

The internet does have an awfully long memory, but it also has a memory in which things that are now prominent at some point start to get filed more towards the back, so to speak. Even now, it's not impossible to rebuild, as long as one doesn't make an immediate career out of crashing and burning further instead of getting one's stuff together. It's not an overnight process, and it might not be entirely whitewashed, but there's redemption for many people, even on the internet, if you wait long enough.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:27 PM on July 30, 2012


Dominic Behan called. He said he's still waiting for his royalties for The Patriot Game.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:29 PM on July 30, 2012


Then read a book by an expert. A book by Stephen Jay Gould or Oliver Sachs or Atul Gawande is a million times more interesting than a pop book by this Lehrer fellow or Susan Orlean.

Stephen Jay Gould might be closer to Jonah Lehrer than you realize, considering the way he fudged results for ideological reasons as previously discussed.
posted by dragoon at 1:40 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Then read a book by an expert. A book by Stephen Jay Gould...

Uh oh...
posted by O Blitiri at 1:41 PM on July 30, 2012


Knew I couldn't get there in time!
posted by O Blitiri at 1:42 PM on July 30, 2012


dragoon: " Stephen Jay Gould might be closer to Jonah Lehrer than you realize, considering the way he fudged results for ideological reasons as previously discussed."

I keep forgetting about that. Thanks for the reminder.
posted by zarq at 1:50 PM on July 30, 2012


...so basically there's no reason to "trust" a non-fiction book published by a Big Press more than a self-published one (let's say, from the same author)? That is frankly surprising to me and now I feel a bit like I've been a rube.

Well, there are a few reasons to trust such books more, but they aren't as strong as fact-checking presumably would be, and most of them don't apply when considering books by the same author.

1) An author that is published by a large publishing house is more likely to be well thought of in his or her field than self-published authors. (This doesn't apply to books by the same author unless that author used to be published by a big press, aren't anymore, and that shift is signalling that they've gone off the deep end and are no longer considered an authority.)
2) If the press is well known for books in a particular field, their editors are almost certainly well-read in that field themselves, and will be knowledgeable readers; such editors will be able to spot the kind of fabrication Lehrer perpetrated.

The major difference I can think of that you're likely to find between two books by the same non-fiction author, one published by a major publisher, and one self-published, is that the self-published work won't have the attention of an editor. For some authors, that will mean a minimal difference in quality. But for most authors, especially those who are not primarily writers, it makes a huge difference, and makes their self-published work less accessible to a general audience, and just less readable.

Rather than deciding to trust a book based on who it's published by, I think the better approach is to pay attention to who wrote it, and to what in their background gives them their authority. And I think most publishers act on the assumption that this is what their readers are doing. Most non-fiction publishers don't expect you to know who they are, because most non-fiction publishers know that readers look for books by a particular author or on a particular subject, not published by a particular press. This is less true for fiction, and for series (like Oxford's Very Short Introductions), but even with series, it is the name of the series that is known, and not the publisher's name. Think about the last five non-fiction books you bought. Without looking, can you tell me who published them? If so, you're quite unusual.

With non-fiction, I myself tend to prefer authors who are not writers professionally, but who write because of their stature within their own profession. So, in terms of New Yorker authors, even before this brouhaha, I would always prefer Atul Gawande over Jonah Lehrer, so long as Gawande was writing about his particular field, and not about another field. (For this reason, I didn't particularly like Gawande's Checklist Manifesto because so much of it concerns fields in which Gawande does not participate, like aviation—I kept wanting to hear about those aspects in the words of a pilot, not a surgeon.) Part of the reason I prefer such authors is that they've got a lot more hanging on the line as the consequence of plagiarism or fabrication. If a researcher does so, his or her entire body of work may come to be discredited, along with any work by other researchers that has built off it. They're not just endangering themselves, they're endangering their entire field.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:58 PM on July 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


"I read a lot of classics, then check every few years to see what of the last 20 years has survived. I've just been too disappointed by modern works to give them the benefit of the doubt. Why read 1Q84 or Freedom today if they'll be just as good in a decade?"

This is odd to me. I mean, I agree there's no particular reason to read those books now. I don't have a problem with you waiting a decade to read them, but I also don't get your logic. The books you mentioned are works of fiction.

Presumably, whenever you read them, they will either cast their spell on you or they won't. They will make you laugh or cry (or they won't). They'll put you on the edge of your seat wondering what happens next (or they won't). They'll make you fall in love with their characters (or they won't). A sad scene doesn't ripen over ten years and, only afterwards, become really sad.

And if current friends and reviewers say, "Wow! That was really exciting," then presumably they were really excited. And if you have similar tastes to them, you'll likely be really excited, to. No? Even if, in ten years, a friend who wept over a novel says, "In retrospect it's not all that good," he still shed real tears back when he first read it.

Of course, I'm coming at this as someone who reads contemporary fiction and classics mostly as a way to have sensual experiences. I guess if I read novels primarily for academic reasons or to judge whether a work was suitable to be called a classic, I might feel differently.
posted by grumblebee at 1:58 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Anyone who falsely attributes quotes to me will receive a fistful of folky justice. Now everyone gather 'round and watch me booty dance."
—Bob Dylan
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 2:00 PM on July 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


I have to say this doesn't seem like that big a deal. Really. Most history is subjective and full of fiction and lies. I'm reading a book now on film history and it's got all kinds of innaccuracies. But the main overall history is true even if some of the facts are not. [In this case the author is writing about himself and has some dates incorrect].

I haven't read this book by Lehrer but I did read a previous book of his titled Proust Was a Neuroscientist and it's pretty good. The essense of what he wrote is sound. The fact that this one made-up quote torpedoes his whole book seems like overkill.

Where fabrications are a big deal is if someone completely makes up numerous facts, events, people, etc and then calls it non-fiction. I don't think that is the case here. [Unless further investigation proves that it is....]
posted by Rashomon at 2:03 PM on July 30, 2012


And I think most publishers act on the assumption that this is what their readers are doing. Most non-fiction publishers don't expect you to know who they are, because most non-fiction publishers know that readers look for books by a particular author or on a particular subject, not published by a particular press.

My impression is that most pop nonfiction is purchased and read based on how well it is marketed - how many times the author is interviewed on NPR, how much book club exposure it has, etc. Nowadays people might by Gladwell's books just because his name is on them, but I don't think Lehrer had the same name recognition.

Do publishers not handle marketing anymore, either?
posted by muddgirl at 2:07 PM on July 30, 2012


...or rather, had. Before all this 'free publicity.'
posted by muddgirl at 2:10 PM on July 30, 2012


My impression is that most pop nonfiction is purchased and read based on how well it is marketed

But still, that purchase is still based on what a reader has heard about the book, and the author, not on who the publisher is. Even if they didn't know the name of the author before they heard an interview, a reader isn't usually buying a book because they heard "Liveright is publishing a new book," they're buying it because they heard "E.O. Wilson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Harvard professor has written a new book," even if they'd never heard of Wilson before.

I guess I'm not sure what you're suggesting; the function of marketing and publicity is to let readers know when a new book has been published. The readers themselves have to decide how much they trust that marketing and publicity.

(And publishers are mostly responsible for marketing and publicity, though authors often think they don't do enough.)
posted by ocherdraco at 2:22 PM on July 30, 2012


(And production and distribution.)
posted by notyou at 2:25 PM on July 30, 2012


(Yes, those too.)
posted by ocherdraco at 2:28 PM on July 30, 2012


(But you see, I was responding to muddgirl's question "Do publishers not handle marketing anymore, either?" which is why I specifically addressed marketing and publicity.)
posted by ocherdraco at 2:29 PM on July 30, 2012


I recently sat in a class filled with people who worked in publishing in general and copyediting in particular, and it was interesting to hear how many of them said they were expected to do some degree of fact-checking as part of their job—even if, strictly speaking, their job title wouldn't tend to imply fact-checking.
posted by cribcage at 2:29 PM on July 30, 2012


I guess I'm not sure what you're suggesting

I'm suggesting that I have an expectation that someone has done a modicum of fact checking before they label a book "non-fiction." To not do so is profiteering. The model seems to be that publishers trust editors, and editors trust authors. But what happens in cases like this, when that trust is grossly mis-founded? What am I, a reader, supposed to do to figure out what nonfiction books contain basically true facts and which ones are made up?

I think we're getting bogged down in details - my original point was that publishers aren't doing a very good job of providing 'value-added' to readers, which is one of the arguments that they make about their own existence.
posted by muddgirl at 2:38 PM on July 30, 2012


(Just wanted to get those two out there to round out the scope of a publisher's usual duties. Apologies that my sidebar suggested you were leaving something out.)
posted by notyou at 2:42 PM on July 30, 2012


This is such sad news about Jonah Lehrer!
posted by nickyskye at 2:46 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think we're getting bogged down in details - my original point was that publishers aren't doing a very good job of providing 'value-added' to readers, which is one of the arguments that they make about their own existence.

I agree that we're getting bogged down. Yeah, there is disagreement about how much value is added by publishers, and how much you think is added is obviously going to be affected by what exactly you think publishers should be doing—I personally don't value fact-checking as much as you do, for example, and value the structural and aesthetic improvements of an editor more highly.

I also think publishers do a really bad job of explaining why they're useful.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:51 PM on July 30, 2012


I think we're getting bogged down in details - my original point was that publishers aren't doing a very good job of providing 'value-added' to readers, which is one of the arguments that they make about their own existence.

Well, it is highly unusual for a writer to fabricate quotes like Lehrer did. On the other hand, it is not unusual for writers to misquote - in other words, they reported what they heard, but their recollection of what they heard does not match what the interviewee actually said.

Anyway, you tend to trust that someone publishing something with such a high profile is not going to lie; there is a huge incentive not to lie, because when the truth comes out it will be nasty.

Interestingly enough, Lehrer's former employer is one of the few magazines that aggressively conducts fact-checking.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:52 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Presumably, whenever you read them, they will either cast their spell on you or they won't. They will make you laugh or cry (or they won't). They'll put you on the edge of your seat wondering what happens next (or they won't). They'll make you fall in love with their characters (or they won't). A sad scene doesn't ripen over ten years and, only afterwards, become really sad."

The problem with this assumption is that it ignores the inevitable march of time on both reader and work. For example, if I had read Cryptonomicon ten years ago, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more. But having tried to read it a few weeks ago, I can give two quick examples of things that didn't age well and made me ultimately put the book aside: First, the crummy straw-manning of academics in a particularly humorless way (not only because I wear a beard) was something that not only was awkward and dated, but took way too long in the text. Ten years ago, I probably wouldn't have cared enough about feminism to notice, but now that I do, it was obnoxious. I probably wouldn't have found "Nipponese" so goddamned precious either. Second, the technological descriptions are on the cusp of farcical in terms of current technology, and the breathless, unironic descriptions just make things seem oddly out of place. Oh, wow, you have a phone that connects to the internet through a radio? It has over one megabyte of memory? Jeepers! Lots of better sci-fi writers skirt that issue by vague appeals to jibber-jabber, but being able to remember the advent of those technologies just made the references seem clumsy.

Who knows, I might have thought it was a shitty book ten years ago, but I think that it's worth recognizing that, you know, you don't step into the same river twice and that when you read a book can impact your reaction to it.
posted by klangklangston at 2:52 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


value the structural and aesthetic improvements of an editor more highly.

This isn't meant to imply that you don't value these, btw, just that those are a higher priority than fact checking for me.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:52 PM on July 30, 2012


Distributed fact checking is something that e.g. Wikipedia is really good at. (Writing articles, ehh...) So I bet there are some sites devoted to checking the references in published works. Lemme Google this for a bit...

Hmm, all the ones I'm coming up with are explicitly political in nature, mostly to do with speeches rather than books. Weird.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:53 PM on July 30, 2012


The publisher will have to speak for itself and its process, muddgirl, but it is almost a certainty that the editorial staff did do a "modicum" of fact checking, along with the usual copyediting (and perhaps developmental editing if Lerner needed help pulling the manuscript together). Obviously, that process did not include cross-checking things Dylan actually said with quotations Lerner attributed to him.

This wasn't a scholarly work, it wasn't put out by an academic publisher, and rigorous peer review isn't part of the process. At a certain point, editors actually do have to trust authors to do their homework and deliver truthful work.
posted by notyou at 2:54 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just realized that Jonah Lehrer is probably sitting at home right now, this very minute, trying not to throw up.

It's easy to see discussions like this as being academic -- being one step removed on the internet -- and then I remember that there's a real person who really messed up his career in a permanent way, and he's scrambling to figure out whether he can salvage his career not only for himself but for his family, and coming to the conclusion that there simply is nothing to be done. The house was pretty much burned down before the water was turned on.

As difficult as it is to contemplate, I do hope that it serves as a lesson for a whole lot of people who simply have not gotten the bulletin yet about the danger in taking academic shortcuts.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:55 PM on July 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


Jonah Lehrer's thoughtfulness, marvelous writing, intelligence and insight have been a source of my admiration and respect for years now and hopefully will continue to be after this storm has passed.

He apologized for his deception to Michael C Moynihan and was publicly forgiven by Michael C Moynihan. His tweet said, "Jonah Lehrer has resigned from the New Yorker and apologized to me. Not that this matters, but I accept his apology and wish him luck."

More details about this situation here: Moynihan continues: “Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot , in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: ‘I couldn’t find the original sources,’ he said. ‘I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.’”

Of course, I'm curious about Lehrer's motivation for these deceptions. He's not one of those grandiose, scheming pathological liars one hears about, he's a brilliant science writer (or some would say pop-sci writer), one of the best and most enjoyed. It's no wonder his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, sold 200,000 copies.

Jonah left Wired to work at the New Yorker only a couple of months ago, this June.

The recycling his own material is iffy, ethically speaking. What was the motivation? Laziness? Arrogance? Getting away with something? Pushed for deadlines? Stress? Greed?

But saying Dylan said stuff or fudging quotations, collaging Dylan statements together, then lying about it to Michael C Moynihan is just such an odd thing to do when writing about neuroscience. I can't help feeling intensely curious about why he did that. Was there something he hoped to validate with those non-quotations? Was it laziness? Did he mis-remember? Of all people to fudge quotations about, Dylan, who is known for his ability to manipulate his public persona.

Anyway, my sympathy to Mr. Lehrer is this day of his being publicly pilloried and hopes that he finds his way up from these ashes to being held in well-founded, earned-trust esteem.
posted by nickyskye at 2:56 PM on July 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


What am I, a reader, supposed to do to figure out what nonfiction books contain basically true facts and which ones are made up?

I usually flip to the back of a book and look for academic-style references before I trust it.

Relying on Google for fact checking will only take you so far. There is still a broad amount of knowledge underrepresented online.
posted by hyperizer at 2:59 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Distributed fact checking is something that e.g. Wikipedia is really good at.

But is that really true? Reading the Talk pages of Wikipedia demonstrates that there are fierce battles about what is a fact and what is infactual...
posted by KokuRyu at 2:59 PM on July 30, 2012


He's not one of those grandiose, scheming pathological liars one hears about, he's a brilliant science writer (or some would say pop-sci writer), one of the best and most enjoyed. It's no wonder his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, sold 200,000 copies.

How do you know that he's not a liar? I say this without snark; what Lehrer did here was lie in a publication to those 200,000 readers. He didn't just deceive Moynihan, he deceived anyone who read the book. What evidence do you have to show this is an isolated incident, given the fact he's been ethically iffy in his recent past?

I found his writing style to be entertaining, but this is a pretty egregious offence and makes me a lot less likely to trust his writing, given that it requires background research to support it and research he's shown he's either too lazy or too interested in his argument to ensure is accurate.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 3:03 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


My sympathy is for all the other writers who don't make up quotes and don't recycle their work without the appropriate disclosures. You know, the folks who do their jobs honestly and with integrity.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:24 PM on July 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


What evidence do you have to show this is an isolated incident, given the fact he's been ethically iffy in his recent past?

I don't think there's a good reason to be sure it's isolated. I wrote in Slate a few months ago about Lehrer's New Yorker piece on brainstorming (a modified excerpt from Imagine) where Lehrer writes about a study of Broadway musicals; but what he says the study says isn't what the study actually says. This bothers me even more than fabrication of quotes. Reporting the results of scientific studies accurately is central to being a popular science writer. At the time I took this to be an honest mistake on Lehrer's part, but now I'm less certain.

My guess is that people will be going through his published work very carefully over the next few weeks.
posted by escabeche at 3:24 PM on July 30, 2012 [14 favorites]


Jonah Lehrer's thoughtfulness, marvelous writing, intelligence and insight have been a source of my admiration and respect for years now and hopefully will continue to be after this storm has passed.

I think you should consider the possibility that what Jonah Lehrer cares about most of all is an appearance of "thoughtfulness, marvelous writing, intelligence and insight"
If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; But if you really make them think, they'll hate you. - Don Marquis
Jonah Lehrer wants very much to be loved by the public
posted by crayz at 3:32 PM on July 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


it wasn't put out by an academic publisher

Wasn't it put out by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt?
HMH aims to spark a lifelong love of learning in every individual we touch. Our challenge and our passion is to combine cutting-edge research, editorial excellence and technological innovation to improve teaching and learning environments and solve complex literacy and education challenges.
Obviously, that process did not include cross-checking things Dylan actually said with quotations Lerner attributed to him.

But isn't that an integral part of the book? "This is Dylan's creative process. We know that because he said so." I don't expect the copyediter to google every quotation, but I DO expect the copyeditor to ask Lehrer to cite his sources (which he did 'inconsistently') and to maybe question the fact that he has access to a special cut of a film that no one else has ever seen or even knew existed.

If Lehrer had magically interviewed Dylan directly, and included those quotes in the book, my impression is that the copyeditor would check the copy against the interview notes, and perhaps even with Dylan. Shouldn't the level of scrutiny be higher with secondary sources?

I'm fully willing to admit that I have a bloated sense of what an editor/publisher actually does, and a newfound willingness to seek out self-published nonfiction.

I wrote in Slate a few months ago about Lehrer's New Yorker piece on brainstorming (a modified excerpt from Imagine) where Lehrer writes about a study of Broadway musicals; but what he says the study says isn't what the study actually says

He's been caught doing that a couple other times (most notably mischaracterizing a study on crowd intelligence), which is why this wasn't particularly surprising to me.
posted by muddgirl at 3:33 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Plagiarizers and fabricators are scumbags. This guy = great big scumbag.

Yes, I agree, Dylan is a great big scumbag.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:37 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Also, I don't know where this impression came from, that self-published books are never edited. Self-publishing authors can hire editors - it's a bit more tricky because they generally have to pay them in advance, but it's definitely doable.)
posted by muddgirl at 3:44 PM on July 30, 2012


As somebody who would die from multiple ego-orgasms if I ever made it as a New Yorker writer, that somebody would fuck up in such a stupid way is balls-to-the-wall bizarro.
posted by angrycat at 4:04 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I usually flip to the back of a book and look for academic-style references before I trust it.

Relying on Google for fact checking will only take you so far. There is still a broad amount of knowledge underrepresented online.


Yep. Though I do question how many people actually recognize the difference between "academic-style references" and a section at the back of the book with a bunch of stuff in tiny type.

Back when Ann Coulter was a thing, her fans lauded her research—"37 pages of footnotes!"*—while ignoring the fact that many, many of her citations led to a source that did not support her claim, or nowhere at all.


*Meaning "endnotes"—but hopefully I've learned to pick my battles. And audiences.
posted by dogrose at 4:14 PM on July 30, 2012


Let's see what the fallout from this is in a few months - I suspect Lehrer will be back, however I keep thinking about the recent Mike Daisey/TAL fiasco. Is it the medium here? I'm curious to know what the motivation was for Lehrer to make stuff up - if you don't have any evidence, move on to something else. Daisey goes waaay overboard in his monologues, and went too far with the Apple shenanigans, but I back Daisey because I was never expecting 100% accuracy from a monologue. Lehrer on the other hand seems to just have gotten lazy and then got caught. I wonder how many people are going back thru all of Lehrer's old work to do a bit more fact checking.

And since I don't think Lehrer deceived anyone at RadioLab, I don't think they'll be devoting an entire show to his mea culpa.
posted by Farce_First at 4:24 PM on July 30, 2012


Yes, I agree, Dylan is a great big scumbag.

I don't believe you.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:31 PM on July 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm continuing to be really puzzled by how unnecessary the big "archival interview footage" lie seems to have been, even though it was the one that pushed this over the top into a totally undeniable, un-spinnable, job-destroying ethical issue rather than the fudgy gray-area cases that Lehrer's previous distortions of sources have been. Why was this lie told "in a moment of panic"?

I mean, supposing one were already unethical enough to have fabricated quotations in print like this, it seems like it'd be pretty easy to back out of this one once caught: "oh, gee, I can't seem to find my notes for that chapter, and you're right, I can't find that Dylan quote anywhere. I'll have to talk to my publisher about correcting this inaccuracy in a future edition. Thanks for pointing it out, no idea how that slipped through!" And you're off the hook, more or less — at least enough to continue your career as a glibly unethical source-fudging "science" writer rather than having to quit your staff-writer job. Why would Lehrer choose to self-destruct with the bigger, more easily exposed lie instead of backing down to an easy "oops, I'll fix that" and going on with life? Why did he panic (as he says he did) this time, when he never had before?
posted by RogerB at 4:44 PM on July 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


And since I don't think Lehrer deceived anyone at RadioLab, I don't think they'll be devoting an entire show to his mea culpa.

I believe that was 'This American Life'.
posted by Rashomon at 4:50 PM on July 30, 2012


I wouldn't rely on HMH's mission statement as evidence that it is an academic publisher. HMH is a big company. It consists of lots of imprints and publishes all kinds of books, including textbooks and trade nonfiction science books (and fiction and children's books and cookbooks and comic books and everything else).

Lerher's book isn't a textbook and it wouldn't have received textbook scrutiny.

Like I said above, the publisher will have to speak for itself and its process. Clearly they were wrong to rely on the writer.

(Also, I don't know where this impression came from, that self-published books are never edited. Self-publishing authors can hire editors - it's a bit more tricky because they generally have to pay them in advance, but it's definitely doable.)

Self-published authors certainly can hire editors to edit their work -- plenty do. They can also do the design and layout, the cover design, figure out the right ebook format, and eventually the marketing and PR or hire someone to -- plenty do. And if they want to get into print, they can also buy their own ISBNs, negotiate terms with the printer, prep the files for the press, review bluelines for accuracy, rent space to store printed copies or hire someone to -- plenty do. They can also negotiate distribution agreements with small or medium sized distributors so that their books are available to booksellers large and small or hire someone to -- plenty do. They can send out review copies, write press releases, do mailings to non-traditional outlets, arrange author-signings and book tours to drum up interest or hire someone to -- plenty do.

Or they can save themselves a lot of work -- and capital -- and find someone else willing to do that stuff on spec.
posted by notyou at 4:56 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I should hire someone to copyedit my MeFi posts before I click "Post Comment".

LEHRER.
posted by notyou at 4:59 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I believe that was 'This American Life'.

No, it was Car Talk.1

1. "Episode 1507," Car Talk, T. Magliozzi, R. Magliozzi, M. Innovera, H. U. Buzzov et al. Dewey, Cheatham and Howe, Cambridge OFC, MA.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:35 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


More from Poynter: Journalist feels ‘horrible’ about revealing Jonah Lehrer’s fabrications

Michael Moynihan does not feel good today, after writing the story that forced Jonah Lehrer to quit his job at The New Yorker and admit he had made up Bob Dylan quotations. “I don’t want the scalp,” Moynihan said in a phone interview. “It’s not what I am interested in.”

...Moynihan said he kept talking to Lehrer to give Lehrer the chance to prove him wrong – perhaps Lehrer was an amazing journalist who had found some undiscovered material that wasn’t widely known. “I didn’t want to be unfair to him, and I didn’t want to be the person who writes a quick blog post and updates it.”

So, knowing what he does now, does Moynihan believe there are more Lehrer falsehoods waiting to be exposed? He doesn’t know for sure, but “as you well know, people tend not to do these things once.”

And what about Dylan, does he know what happened? “My guess is that Dylan doesn’t give a shit.”

posted by mediareport at 6:06 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Jonah Lehrer's thoughtfulness, marvelous writing, intelligence and insight have been a source of my admiration and respect for years now and hopefully will continue to be after this storm has passed.

No, this wasn't an isolated incident. Even before the Dylan thing and the self-copying, he should have resigned over this. He was not worthy of writing for The New Yorker.
posted by John Cohen at 6:07 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


This has always been my technique. I read a lot of classics, then check every few years to see what of the last 20 years has survived. I've just been too disappointed by modern works to give them the benefit of the doubt. Why read 1Q84 or Freedom today if they'll be just as good in a decade?

Because you might get hit by a bus tomorrow?

I really, really hope you don't, but it's a pretty fucking compelling reason.
posted by kbanas at 6:07 PM on July 30, 2012


I'm curious how the publisher is going to handle this. Do they pull the book, knowing it will mean umpteen thousand copies go unsold? A Lehrer book is not exactly guaranteed to hit the NYT Best-sellers list, but it's probably going to come close. That's a serious chunk of change for the publisher to lose because of an unscrupulous author.
posted by deathpanels at 6:18 PM on July 30, 2012


(Also, I don't know where this impression came from, that self-published books are never edited. Self-publishing authors can hire editors - it's a bit more tricky because they generally have to pay them in advance, but it's definitely doable.)

Self-published books are never very rarely edited because the editor has to be paid in advance.
posted by dogrose at 6:46 PM on July 30, 2012


I'm curious how the publisher is going to handle this.

The book has been on the best-seller list for months and was recalled today by the publisher.
posted by plastic_animals at 6:48 PM on July 30, 2012


He can’t be more than thirty, and already has two bestsellers on the topic: Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide. I am sure another is on its way...

...it’s my guess that it will be his fans who will be upset. In saying that Jonah Lehrer is not a neuroscientist, I am messing with their fantasy. You see, the general public has wanted Lehrer to be a neuroscientist. And by this they haven’t meant they wanted him to have a PhD. I honestly don’t think they care about his degree. They want him – and anyone else they give the honorific – to understand the brain and then explain it. Pleasantly.

They want neuroscience to make as much sense as Jonah Lehrer’s writing does, and the brain to be as unthreatening as Jonah Lehrer makes it.


This is great analysis, and provides some context for the depth of the cynicism I expressed earlier in this thread. People are looking for easily digestible books about complex subjects. And there are people out there perfectly happy to capitalize on this need.

I used to work for an industry association. I did a lot of things, and one of them was manage a program that put very early stage entrepreneurs in tough with qualified mentors.

These fledgling entrepreneurs would come into my office, and the first thing I told them was "I do not have any business experience, and I cannot give you any advice about business", but I could connect them with people who could.

I also came into contact with various "entrepreneurs" who, for a price, provided services to the early stage / startup companies. More often than not, the advice was bad, or unsuitable, or simply lacking any value. So I acted as a filter. But there is a whole industry of shysters and self-promoters. Being a shyster and self-promoter is a big part about how "public intellectuals" gain prominence.

I have an example from today. The province (or state) where I live is undergoing some political turmoil, so the local radio station had a "political expert" on to discuss what's happening. He was in politics a long time ago, but now operates a think tank. He's often on the radio or on television providing analysis about Canadian and British Columbia politics.

He sounds good on air, but, in reality, he is a fake and a fraud and a douchebag. I know this because I had the misfortune to have to work with him when I was in government. My boss (himself a fake and a fraud) had promised this political commentator $10,000 for a one-day seminar about "innovation", and there was a chance this seminar might be attended by Preston Manning.

So the task was passed on to me to negotiate a contribution agreement. When I ask the political commentator about some sort of tangible benefit for the money, I was strong-armed and bullied, and he eventually went over my head to get the money.

And life goes on for him, appearing on the radio as an "expert". But do a little digging (and this includes for writers who like to simplify things, like Lehrer) and it's often a different story entirely.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:53 PM on July 30, 2012


KokuRyu, are you familiar with Drew Greenblatt and Joe Olivo?
posted by dogrose at 7:26 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"No, this wasn't an isolated incident. Even before the Dylan thing and the self-copying, he should have resigned over this. He was not worthy of writing for The New Yorker."

I don't think that's necessarily germane to the New Yorker — he wrote it for a different publication and I'm not sure he was even on their staff when he wrote it (I think he's been there nine months).

But it is damning, both of him individually and, shall we say, as the median of pop science writers.
posted by klangklangston at 8:33 PM on July 30, 2012


Semi-relevant question I've always wondered about: Are Jonah Lehrer and Jim Lehrer and Brian Lehrer related?
posted by breakin' the law at 8:49 PM on July 30, 2012


Yes. All Lehrers are related.*

*I made that up.
posted by homunculus at 9:14 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


But in fairness, Lehrer lost a lot of his backup data and source information when the Jukt Micronics web servers crashed.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:15 PM on July 30, 2012


I honestly don't get the hate and outrage here. Leher and Gladwell are the dead tree version of metafilter to me. They're the shallow end of the intellectual ocean, and provide a good compass to to who I should go and read after them. Case in point, Without Gladwell I wouldn't have heard about Anders Ericsson and read his research.

Leher wasn't fabricating stories out of whole cloth, wasn't inventing research. I'm just not getting why this is being treated as some great violation, and Lehrer being publicly stoned.
posted by herda05 at 9:39 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Man, I'm going to have to listen to this guy yammering on RadioLab about how a catscan showed why his brain did this to him, aren't I?

I laughed at this, and don't care to hear many excuses or explanations from Mr. Lehrer, but there is something about this type of fraud and the people who seem to perpetrate it that leaves me to believe they are seriously messed in the head. It goes beyond laziness or thinking they can get away with it and into something missing in the "actions have consequences" part of their minds.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:04 PM on July 30, 2012


First, the crummy straw-manning of academics in a particularly humorless way (not only because I wear a beard) was something that not only was awkward and dated, but took way too long in the text.

FWIW, I read Cryptonomicon ten years ago, and that section nearly made me throw the book across the room.
posted by asterix at 10:24 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Undergraduates everywhere trying to write their "apply a social psychology finding to real world events" papers are now crying out in horror as their spiritual leader has been slain.
posted by srboisvert at 3:15 AM on July 31, 2012


Hahaha srboisvert.

But no, really. I wrote my application essay for Harvard about Jonah Lehrer and how everyone has the potential to be really intellectually engaged in all sorts of things as soon as they realize that it's all real, that science is in the air we breathe and history is in the ground we stand on. That's why this pisses me off incredibly - what I loved about Jonah's writing is that it inspired people's curiosity, made them want to learn more about the world around them. The world is strange enough and complex enough and beautiful enough on its own! You don't have to make stuff up to find stories worth telling! Making things up cheapens his entire message. Go ahead and retreat into your sitcoms, world, because there's nothing worth thinking about out here.
posted by estlin at 3:54 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mean, I'm in no way excusing plagiarism, fraud or theft. But. I don't think it's impossible to comprehend the impulse, when one hears/sees/tastes someone else's idea that would just, you know, dovetail perfectly, make it really ring true, give it that narrative drive, that internal elegance that elevates good writing to memorable, distinctive storytelling. If this is your livelihood, and you are flying in that rarified air and you need to keep it coming, well, there goes your impulse control. "If he just says this, right here, it would bring it all home." And creativity is a mash-up enterprise, always has been (pace Dylan); the trend is growing as access to a world of ideas and expression has exploded. "Fictionalized memoir"? 25 years ago that "genre" would have been just lying.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:30 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes. All Lehrers are related.*
*I made that up.


It's clear that Jonah was merely following the wise counsel of his cousin Tom:

Plagiarize,
Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don't shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize...
Only be sure always to call it please "research".

posted by Daily Alice at 4:48 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Jayson Blair on Jonah Lehrer.
posted by rory at 6:13 AM on July 31, 2012



Jayson Blair on Jonah Lehrer.

NOTE: Link is not to an animated gif.
posted by srboisvert at 6:22 AM on July 31, 2012


You used Malcolm Gladwell as an example; surely you're aware of the influence his books have had alone?
posted by Avenger50


Can't. Stop. Laughing.
posted by spitbull at 6:42 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


This has always been my technique. I read a lot of classics, then check every few years to see what of the last 20 years has survived. I've just been too disappointed by modern works to give them the benefit of the doubt. Why read 1Q84 or Freedom today if they'll be just as good in a decade?

As much as I'm resisting reading 50 Shades just to be able to join in on conversations on how bad it is, this seems like a strange form of temporal elitism. Something doesn;t have to ascend to the canon to be good. Some things just need to be read at the time - Primary Colors is twenty years old now (1992 I think?) but too much time has passed between the very-of-its-time setting and now for me to feel like picking it up over a hundred other books. And some things just need to be read because they sound brilliant, and turn out to be. If you're working through a backlog from 1992 at the moment, then you've missed out on Incendiary, Blankets, The Clothes on their Backs, What Was Lost, and a hundred other books I've read and loved just from the past decade or so. And you might get hit by a bus tomorrow.
posted by mippy at 7:28 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


(In fairness, I read 2-3 books a week so I'd run out of books pretty quickly if I had rules about this stuff. I'm also partial to a bit of fluff from time to time.)
posted by mippy at 7:29 AM on July 31, 2012



Leher wasn't fabricating stories out of whole cloth, wasn't inventing research.


At this point, we don't know what he was and wasn't doing. First some things were discovered which may seem like more or less technical violations. Then he's making up quotes. Then he's actually making up a story about interview footage which doesn't exist. These kinds of scandals usually spool out for a while. I don't know, maybe he can't turn out to be another Stephen Glass, because his writing isn't based on anecdotes and claims to have met people and things like that. But that one lie is in Stephen Glass territory.

I'm not that interested in condemning him; like thinkpiece says, if you've ever labored over a piece of writing, it's fairly easy to understand the temptation-- at least as far as the making up quotes stuff. But I am interested in finding out exactly what he did.
posted by BibiRose at 7:36 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]



This has always been my technique. I read a lot of classics, then check every few years to see what of the last 20 years has survived. I've just been too disappointed by modern works to give them the benefit of the doubt. Why read 1Q84 or Freedom today if they'll be just as good in a decade?


If you follow that line of reasoning, why read the newspaper? Most of what's in it will be forgotten soon.

In the movie Wordplay, Bill Clinton says he does the New York Times crossword "to see what people are thinking about." I loved that, and I think that's exactly the appeal of keeping current with some things. I understand choosing to keep current in things other than novels because novels represent a pretty big time investment. But to decide that current literary culture is devoid of interest? I don't get that.
posted by BibiRose at 7:43 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I honestly don't get the hate and outrage here.

After reading nickyskye's kind and generous comment, I've been thinking about the situation and my snark far more than I expected to. My dislike for Lehrer, Gladwell, Freakonomics, etc. and their peddlers & proponents comes from my inability to evaluate the stuff on my own and my suspicion of popular phenomenon and the insidious way it propagates itself. I haven't directly encountered the three examples I've mentioned, but Lehrer is a frequent participant on RadioLab, for at least a solid year you couldn't swing a cat without hitting the Freakonomics guys, and Gladwell's everywhere - or at least his hair is - and they are rarely challenged in the venues I in which I find them (Is the responsibility of those venues to provide a critical analysis that I can't/won't? Not always, if I'm being honest, but the shilling of the phenomenon still grates). There is undoubtedly more than a little bit of intellectual insecurity on my part at work here and perhaps a fear of missing out, but at the same time, I get pissed off because their authority is readily accepted by people who I feel are better equipped than I to challenge. When it's shown that a boy wonder like Lehrer, who has been built into something that he may or may not have actively courted, isn't merely wrong but was actively deceitful, it becomes an Emperor Has No Clothes situation, I probably feel a little vindicated for not buying in and staying distanced ('I guess you were expressing disbelief at the wrong thing, huhn, Krulwich? HA!'), though it has more to do with laziness and cynicism than my critical faculties.

Of course, I'm not claiming my petty insecurity is what's motivated anyone else's responses in this thread; I'm just working through my own.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:57 AM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


Jayson Blair on Jonah Lehrer.

NOTE: Link is not to an animated gif.


WARNING: Link is to The Daily Beast.

(I can't be the only one who saw that link, clicked, and then muttered to myself, "Well, of course Jayson Blair's writing for The Daily Beast." We need a term for a certain kind of rote contrarianism propped up by staggering self-regard and lapsed social capital. I propose "Tina Brown.")
posted by gompa at 8:39 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I honestly don't get the hate and outrage here. ... Leher wasn't fabricating stories out of whole cloth, wasn't inventing research. I'm just not getting why this is being treated as some great violation, and Lehrer being publicly stoned.

I don't see the difference between "fabricating stories out of whole cloth" and "inventing research," versus lying that "Bob Dylan said [X]." Telling your readers that a subject said something he/she didn't is fabricating a story out of whole cloth. Telling your readers, "I wasn't able to interview him but I found this quote where he said [X]" when [X] is something you invented is inventing research. No snark intended, seriously: What distinction do you see?

As for the public stoning...? I do appreciate the comments in this thread reminding us that Lehrer is a human being, that he is probably sitting at home with his family and feeling terrible about himself. Too often during scandals, we view the participants as indistinct from their actions. It's worthwhile to remember that Lehrer is a person just like us. I wish him happiness, good health, and a successful career going forward.

But that doesn't mean I hope he survives as an author. I do not. I have all the forgiveness in the world for him as a person, but as an author I hope he's finished. Transgressions like this run deeper than just having personal-to-him consequences; they poison the field. Researchers who falsify data should never again be permitted to publish research. Attorneys who defraud clients should never again be permitted to represent anyone. And any editor or agent who sees Lehrer's name on a future manuscript should throw the package into the wastebasket.
posted by cribcage at 9:04 AM on July 31, 2012


Ugh. What a disgrace. I bought the Kindle version of How We Decide back in March, but hadn't read more than a couple of chapters. Knowing that I can't trust the accuracy of Lehrer's work, I'm never going to finish it...and I feel like a sucker for having spent money on it. Fortunately, Amazon was kind enough to give me a refund under the circumstances. <3 Amazon, </3 Lehrer.
posted by phatkitten at 9:09 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought a quote from this article about the situation was pretty spot-on: "Great long-form journalism comes from the author's irrepressible need to answer a question. Fictional long-form journalism comes from the writer's irrepressible need to be hailed as an oracle."

Hubris versus service. The former tends to be very elusive to introspection for those who hold it, but transparent to those who despise it and are watching for it closely. Hubris is antithetical to good research, while humility, it seems, is an appropriate prerequisite and stands in service to the truth.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:31 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


estlin - I hope this doesn't make you less likely to get in.
posted by mippy at 10:24 AM on July 31, 2012


That Forbes link is good, SpacemanStix, thanks (even if the idiocy of dividing a short essay into two web pages is on unusually prominent display):

Call it “Gladwellization.” It’s not just lucrative, but powerful: your ideas (or rather, the ideas you’ve turned into compelling anecdotes for a popular audience) can influence everything from editorial choices across the publishing world to corporate management and branding strategies.

But with this comes mounting demands to produce, and to recycle. You have to be prolific, churning out longer pieces that give your insights some ballast, and brilliant, bite-sized items. And yet you can’t be too new either: people want to hear what you’re already famous for. In this cauldron of congratulation and pressure for more and more, it’s not hard to see how standards might erode, how the “ideas” might become more important than doing the necessary due diligence to make sure they sync with reality. Book publishers don’t do fact-checks, so there’s no fail-safe, just the conscience of the writer. Reach that point, and all is lost.


The link back to this sharp (if not savage) Slate piece about Lehrer in June is also worth a re-read.
posted by mediareport at 1:19 PM on July 31, 2012


And you know what? I linked to the wrong source for the quote (which I find just a little bit humorous, considering the topic). Here's the source.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:24 PM on July 31, 2012


Can't. Stop. Laughing.

Neither can I, because his last couple books sold 2 million copies and Blink was in the top 50 of Amazon users’ favorite books of the decade.

Not to mention his research on the NFL and concussions, which pretty much started the conversation.

I'm not even saying I'm a fan of the guy, but I am saying he's had a huge influence on the masses, and those that try to be like him in the genre will be too.
posted by Avenger50 at 2:35 PM on July 31, 2012


Everything being written about Jonah Lehrer right now, all summed up.

Moynihan re Lehrer: Oh, I think there’s an enormous amount of jealousy to see someone who’s 31 years-old, who gives TED Talks, and has a column in the Wall Street Journal, then in Wired, then ascends to the height of The New Yorker and gets that sort of brass ring.

As for the fudged Dylan quotations, there are seven of them.

To the the best of my knowledge Lehrer did not plagiarize anything. What he did was give his own writing to different publishers and did not inform them that what he offered them was already in print elsewhere.

Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the "wrongful appropriation," "close imitation," or "purloining and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions," and the representation of them as one's own original work. (Emphasis mine.)

In the Observer interview with Michael C Moynihan, who broke this story, he says: I really resent people who plagiarize, and I didn’t catch Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing. (Emphasis mine.)

According to Moynihan in the same interview: I had talked to two British journalists about a British writer whose piece I had noticed was in The New Statesman, and pretty much the same one a couple months later in The Telegraph. They said, ‘Oh, we do this all the time here, double-dipping is part of the game.’

According to the Slate article: Self-plagiarism is not the same as plagiarism

There seems in this hate fest against Lehrer a lot of contempt and rage for his popularizing science to non-scientists. I don't understand this. Why should non-scientists be unable to learn something about neuroscience in terms that are comprehensible to them? Should concepts or elements of science only ever be understood by the small group of people who have a degree in that subject or work in that field?

Scientists also are human, neither perfectly altruistic nor perfectly competent.

A number of journalists and scientists are what is now termed science communicators.

To the best of my knowledge, nothing Lehrer wrote about in this Imagine: How Creativity Works book is considered incorrect science. If it were, it seems likely scientists would speak up and the topic debated and maybe they will debate or criticize. That debate seems par for the course in the scientific process and worth valuing.

Is Oliver Sacks is a bad guy too for his writing directed to non-scientists about his experiences and observations? What about Neil deGrasse Tyson's marvelously entertaining and richly educational work on popularizing astrophysics?

Or is it that science journalists are not permitted to write about science, only scientists? Should WIRED be put out of business today because of that? What about magazines like Popular Science, is that worth loathing? Or is it that journalists can only write about science but never to lay people, never to popularize a topic to those who do not have a degree in that topic? Or is it that all science writing by journalists has to be flawless all the time, never any room for debate or correction?

It seems to me that this author has been, imo, an excellent writer and worthy of patience. He made a mistake. I'm not talking about tolerance of misbehavior but do not think the extent of what he did is worthy of hate, rage or contempt.
posted by nickyskye at 2:49 PM on July 31, 2012


To the best of my knowledge, nothing Lehrer wrote about in this Imagine: How Creativity Works book is considered incorrect science. If it were, it seems likely scientists would speak up and the topic debated and maybe they will debate or criticize.

I don't want to keep repeating myself in the thread, but yes, at least one thing he wrote about Imagine (the material about "Q", which is the center of a whole chapter of his book) gets the science wrong. I am a scientist and I did speak up about it, in Slate (link in my previous comment on this thread.)

It is great when non-scientists write about science. I like Gladwell. I like Sacks. I haven't read Tyson but I'm sure I'd like him, too. Nobody's perfect, but you have to make your best effort to get things right.
posted by escabeche at 3:27 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Isaac Chotiner's review of Imagine in the New Republic:
IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.

The irony of Lehrer’s work, and of the genre as a whole, is that while he takes an almost worshipful attitude toward specific scientific studies, he is sloppy in his more factual claims. (In one low moment, he quotes an online poll from Nature magazine to support one of his arguments.) I am not an expert on brain science, but for Lehrer to quote a study about the ability of test subjects to answer questions when those questions were placed on a computer screen with a blue background, and then to make the life-changing claim that “the color blue can help you double your creative output,” is laughable. No scientist would accept such an inference.

This superficiality is a tip-off about the book’s intended audience. Imagine is another manual for self-styled entrepreneurs. Lehrer’s definition of creativity is essentially an entrepreneurial one: for him, anything that succeeds is creative. I mean this in two ways. First, any product that sells, from a mop to a drink, is a sign of creativity. It would follow from Lehrer’s approach that a study of movie box office numbers would prove that there must be something remarkably creative about Transformers.
(published June 7, before this recent scandal broke)
posted by dustyasymptotes at 3:35 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


He made a mistake. I'm not talking about tolerance of misbehavior but do not think the extent of what he did is worthy of hate, rage or contempt.

What strikes me is your word choices. Lehrer "made a mistake." He didn't lie, he "fudged" quotations. I'm wondering if you are pointedly using abstract language in order to minimize Lehrer's transgressions because you want to defend him (which is okay, it's a valid rhetorical tactic) or if these language choices are subconscious. It's clear that you enjoy his writing.

Hate and rage and contempt are also rather abstract terms, and interestingly they fall toward the other end of the spectrum. "Fudging" seems to minimize, while "rage" and "hate" seem to exaggerate. I hope nobody wishes poverty or destitution upon Lehrer...but he deliberately deceived editors and readers, and you just cannot do that as an author. It poisons the well for other authors, editors, and readers. I assume this is self-evident and needn't be elaborated upon.

There are lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of different jobs and careers that a 31-year-old Ivy League graduate and former Rhodes Scholar can turn to, and I really don't think that saying he should be prevented from publishing as an author again amounts to "rage" or "hate" or is even unfair. I think it's a necessary cure, and I think it's proportional.
posted by cribcage at 3:54 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Okay, Lehrer lied, but to put you on the spot, it seems like you're just using this as an opportunity voice your resentment against an Ivy Leaguer who was born with all the breaks. However, we all make mistakes, and it looks like Lehrer will pay the price for his mistakes.

Will he be broken on the wheel? No. Does he deserve to be? No. He will get a second chance, which is something we should all get. But he won't get a second chance working for the New Yorker, because he has been identified and outed as a liar and a fraud.

Love the sinner, hate the sin, etc etc.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:37 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think you have to be perversely moralistic or mean-spirited or anti-Ivy League to be angry about this. People have spent a lot of their hard-earned money and free time on his books. It looks like he used lies to move that product. Now, hopefully people will be able to get a refund on that one book, but getting a refund is not the same as not getting rooked out of your money in the first place.
posted by BibiRose at 4:57 PM on July 31, 2012


To the the best of my knowledge Lehrer did not plagiarize anything.

To the best of the rest of ours, he plagiarized Gladwell repeatedly. As far as the rest of your misplaced defensiveness, it really should be quite apparent that no one is mad at Lehrer because he writes pop science — rather, people are bothered by his writing wrong and apparently deliberately falsified pop science (and, perhaps somewhat separately though the same lack of intellectual ethics is at the root of both problems, for wrapping a comically simplistic worldview in a cloak of scientism).
posted by RogerB at 4:59 PM on July 31, 2012


I don't think you have to be perversely moralistic or mean-spirited or anti-Ivy League to be angry about this

I can understand why some people are angry about this (I'm still angry that John Squire was dumb enough to go mountain biking and break his collarbone), but the name-calling seems pretty weird and opportunistic to me.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:30 PM on July 31, 2012


Is Oliver Sacks is a bad guy too for his writing directed to non-scientists about his experiences and observations? What about Neil deGrasse Tyson's marvelously entertaining and richly educational work on popularizing astrophysics?

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist and psychologist; he also writes engagingly about neurology and psychology.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist; he also writes engagingly about astrophysics.

Jonah Lehrer is a writer; he also writes.
posted by dogrose at 6:00 PM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


to put you on the spot, it seems like you're just using this as an opportunity voice your resentment against an Ivy Leaguer who was born with all the breaks.

Was that directed at me? You appear to be replying to somebody but you didn't quote, and your comment immediately follows mine. But as far as I'm aware you know exactly zip about my background, about whether I attended college or where, about what "breaks" I was or was not born with, et cetera. I certainly don't know you. I don't recognize your username at all—except from above where you said, "I'm going to bow out of this thread."

If you weren't replying to me, then please ignore and I apologize for the confusion. If you were...well, then I'd gently suggest following through on your declaration. Not because other people's anger appears to be "directed at" you, but just the opposite. You seem to be taking this topic weirdly personally.
posted by cribcage at 6:43 PM on July 31, 2012


Yes, that was directed at you. I'm sorry you don't recognize my username. Please feel free to contact me via MeMail if you would like to discuss my posts, etc, or flag my comments and move on.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:01 PM on July 31, 2012


When I first heard this story, I briefly confused Jonah Lehrer with Jonah Goldberg.
posted by box at 8:12 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


What strikes me is your word choices. Lehrer "made a mistake." He didn't lie, he "fudged" quotations. I'm wondering if you are pointedly using abstract language in order to minimize Lehrer's transgressions because you want to defend him (which is okay, it's a valid rhetorical tactic) or if these language choices are subconscious.

Moynihan says this: I asked Lehrer about seven Bob Dylan quotes in the chapter—three of which aren’t detectable anywhere else, at least not in the forms in which they appear in the book; three others of which include portions of real Dylan quotes; and one that is dramatically removed from its original context to conform to the narrative of Imagine. Lehrer claims that some of these anomalies can be attributed to the editing process—he told me he excised 10,000 words from his original draft of the Dylan chapter—and insists that all of the unattributed quotes do come from somewhere; he simply cannot find their sources. (Emphasis mine.)

Moynihan says that Lehrer lied to him in giving him the run around about where the Dylan quotes came from. Yes, he lied about that. He said he panicked and he apologized.

Moynihan said: When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”

The details about what all of the quotations were have not yet been clarified. One of the quotations whose source has not been found is, “It’s a hard thing to describe,” Bob Dylan once mused about the creative process. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”

Another instance according to Moynihan: in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together

While this is deceptive, inaccurate, sloppy, not wise, I do not think this is cause for loathing, despising, raging at him or that it invalidates all his previous writing.
posted by nickyskye at 2:33 AM on August 1, 2012


Oliver Sacks is a neurologist and psychologist; he also writes engagingly about neurology and psychology.

His writing is, however, also full of bullshit for the sake of making his stories unique and exciting. At least on the subject of the neurobiology of music, he is so far off the mark in so many ways in Musicophilia that the book is something of a running joke among cognitive scientists who work in the area.

Sacks knows his readers -- the same ones who read Gladwell and Lehrer, listen to RadioLab, and treat the Science section of the New York Times as if it were a peer-reviewed journal. The funny common thread to so much of this work (most of which ultimately reflects the rise of evolutionary psychology as a more sophisticated form of tautological "biological" explanation for contemporary social inquality than the old racist sociobiology, or the even older behavioral psychology).

Look, you own a nice car and live in a nice house and have a fancy degree Because Evolution and The Brain, ok? You deserve it.
posted by spitbull at 6:20 AM on August 1, 2012


whoops, incomplete sentence above: The funny common thread to so much of this work is the attempt to reduce social inequality and cultural difference to a completely biological and evolutionary basis. It's Social Darwinism, 21st century style. They've stopped using directly racist language, but it's right behind the curtain.
posted by spitbull at 6:22 AM on August 1, 2012


Sacks knows his readers -- the same ones who read Gladwell and Lehrer, listen to RadioLab, and treat the Science section of the New York Times as if it were a peer-reviewed journal.

I'm not a scientist, but academically I come from a social science background. Affluenza was a polemic, and as with all polemics the nuances get lost in favour of a sharper turn of phrase. I found it very smug - he was obviously a little in love with himself for coining such a catchy title.

The only other work of his I came across was his psychological advice column in the Observer years ago, in which he recommended all in their 20s should undergo psychotherapy. As if twenty year olds aren't solipsistic enough.
posted by mippy at 7:52 AM on August 1, 2012


An intelligent, balanced and thoughtful article about the Jonah Lehrer mess, written by Daniel Bor, a neuroscientist.

However, the main purpose of Imagine, to impart science, does suffer significantly when many of these elementary yet important scientific facts are just as wrong as the Dylan quote, and perhaps also if the topic is dealt with in too superficial a way. Chabris’ review came out on May 11th, and it should have been at this stage that the publisher stepped in, and pulled all copies of Imagine off the shelves for a few months, until a factually accurate replacement was available (preferably checked by an actual scientist). And the newspapers and magazines that Lehrer contributed to should have paused and thought about fact and source checking at this point, in early May. Instead, Lehrer was hired as a staff writer for the New Yorker a month later.


He makes a very good point: I believe for any general audience science book, but especially those written by non-scientists like Jonah Lehrer, the publisher and author should always include academic scientific review as part of the process, to catch the kind of errors that Lehrer repeatedly makes before they turn up in print. Although my main experience is in the book field, the same applies to newspaper and magazine articles about science.

Perhaps having a any science book - even those written by scientists - reviewed by by other scientists to catch factual errors before being published, might be recommended as well.

I like the way the article ended: But perhaps you also have a role to play in keeping a hint of doubt always in your mind, perhaps a little more broadly for journalists than scientists. And with the internet an increasingly interactive place, many times you have the power to check facts yourself, badger authors for sources, or other scientist bloggers with questions and clarifications. This way we can all do our bit to raise the quality of scientific writing.
posted by nickyskye at 2:05 PM on August 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Thanks for that Daniel Bor link, nickyskye; it's quite damning:

When I emailed Lehrer to point out [a "glaring factual error"], his reply was that “it was the one fact my editor added in the final draft…”

At the time, I simply assumed this was true. But now I don’t. This morning I contacted his editor at Nature, Brendan Maher, to ask about this, and Maher told me that this mistake was present in the first draft of the article that Lehrer sent to him, so was most definitely not an inaccurate last minute addition by the editor. To add insult to injury, after I’d pointed out this mistake to Lehrer, he nevertheless repeated it verbatim 7 months later in this Wired blog article, and then 6 months after that in another Wired blog article.


Hard to see Lehrer as anything other than a complete asshole on that one. Ugh. What kind of person pulls something like that? And yeah, the fact that the New Yorker hired him *after* the clear mistakes pointed out in the NYT review says an awful lot about where the New Yorker editors' heads are at these days. The location is not pleasant.
posted by mediareport at 10:01 PM on August 3, 2012


What kind of person pulls something like that?

My speculation, because I think that Lehrer is not at core a bad human being, is that he became famous young and it went to his head, a grandiosity bubble of temporary narcissism that made him think that he was entitled to be above the rules of fact checking. This arrogance is fairly common among people who achieve celebrity at a young age, especially those with gifted intelligence or abilities, which I think Lehrer has.

I do think Daniel Bor makes a great point that the publisher and author should always include academic scientific review as part of the process. That would correct any false entitlement or sloppiness on the part of the author before a science article or book is published.
posted by nickyskye at 12:55 AM on August 4, 2012


he became famous young

Is that The New Yorker's excuse here, too? :)
posted by mediareport at 6:37 AM on August 4, 2012


I suspect Lehrer will be back, however I keep thinking about the recent Mike Daisey/TAL fiasco.

How Mike Daisey retooled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: A fabulist reforms after being confronted with some facts.
posted by homunculus at 11:01 AM on August 9, 2012






Michael Monynihan's reaction to Wired's decision.
posted by rdr at 10:13 AM on August 18, 2012





LA Review of Books: Hubris and Envy: The Lehrer Affair by Robert Zaretsky


Whoa, that is an impressive traffic jam of analogies.

And I'm sure Thucydides would have thought so too.
posted by BibiRose at 10:08 AM on August 19, 2012


"Right you are," Thucydides remarked, in archival footage I secretly discovered but can't put my finger on right now.
posted by escabeche at 1:54 PM on August 19, 2012


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