Jonah Lehrer’s missing compass

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My first contact with Jonah Lehrer came almost exactly two years ago, on August 4, 2010. He had just published a 660-word Wired blog post titled “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories,” which recounted an anecdote from the classic 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, in which Leon Festinger and some of his colleagues developed the theory of cognitive dissonance to describe what happens when “disconfirmed” expectations produced counterintuitive results. In addition to being a fascinating piece of scholarship, Festinger’s book is a rip-roaring read; the main narrative details Festinger’s infiltration of a doomsday cult that prophesied the world would end on December 21, 1954.

I wrote to Lehrer because I had noticed two small mistakes in his post: First, he had incorrectly written that the massive flood that would destroy the world was supposed to come at midnight on December 20; the correct date was December 21. Second, he had misidentified the cult leader as “Marion Keech,” the pseudonym Festinger used in his book; her real name was Dorothy Martin.

Lehrer’s response was gracious and warm (“I’m a big fan of your work”; “If I can help support [The Panic Virus], please let me know”^) — and also a little bit off. He said that he hadn’t realized Keech was a pseudonym, which was plausible enough. He also wrote, “According to my copy of When Prophecy Fails, the flood was supposed to begin after midnight on 12/20, with the rapture coming on 12/21.”

Even at the time, that seemed like an odd and completely unnecessary thing to say. By convention and practice, 12:00 am is considered part of the following day, not the preceding one. Why not just make a quick change and be done with it?

***

On Monday, Lehrer was revealed to be a liar, a charlatan, and a fraud. He made up quotes by Bob Dylan for his latest book, Imagine, and then lied to Michael Moynihan, the reporter who’d uncovered his deception. When those revelations came to light, I went back to re-read my initial email exchange with Lehrer, as well as the post that had prompted that correspondence. What I discovered was disturbing and sad, but not surprising.

The first thing I noticed was that Lehrer had lied to me: Unless he has access to a one-of-a-kind edition of Festinger’s book, Festinger never wrote, as Lehrer claimed, that “the flood was supposed to begin after midnight on 12/20, with the rapture coming on 12/21.” What Festinger actually wrote was that the events he describes were supposed to “take place precisely at midnight on December 21.” What’s more, those events are not, as Lehrer claimed in his post, the “massive flood” that would destroy human civilization; as Festinger writes again and again and again, that wouldn’t occur until sometime the following day.

Then I noticed that Lehrer had misspelled the pseudonym Festinger used for Dorothy Martin. (It’s Marian, not Marion Keech.) That’s evidence of sloppiness, but nothing more. The same can’t be said for Lehrer’s selective altering of Festinger’s description of the events of that fateful night. Here’s Festinger describing the cultists as the clock approached, and then passed, midnight (emphasis added):

They had nothing to do but sit and wait, their coats in their laps. In the tense silence two clocks ticked loudly, one about ten minutes faster than the other. When the faster of the two pointed to 12:05, one of the observers remarked aloud on the fact. A chorus of people replied that midnight had not yet come. Bob Eastman affirmed that the slower clock was correct; he had set it himself only that afternoon. It showed only four minutes before midnight.

These four minutes passed in complete silence except for a single utterance. When the (slower) clock on the mantel showed only one minute remaining before the guide to the saucer was due, Marian exclaimed in a strained, high-pitched voice: “And not a plan has gone astray!” The clock chimed twelve, each stroke painfully clear in the expectant hush. The believers sat motionless.

One might have expected some visible reaction. Midnight had passed and nothing had happened. The cataclysm itself was less than seven hours away. But there was little to see in the reactions of the people in that room. There was no talking, no sound. People sat stock still, their faces seemingly frozen and expressionless.

And here’s Lehrer:

On the night of December 20, Keech’s followers gathered in her home and waited for instructions from the aliens. Midnight inexorably approached. When the clock read 12:01 and there were still no aliens, the cultists began to worry. A few began to cry. The aliens had let them down.

One of the striking things about those changes are that they’re both completely unnecessary and obviously deliberate.

Even that wasn’t the end of Lehrer’s obscuring of reality: He also conflated two quotes from Festinger’s book. Here’s Festinger, quoting a message Martin/Keech received from outer space:

[F]rom the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room and that which has been loosed within this room now floods the entire Earth.

Here’s Festinger describing that message:

It was an adequate, even an elegant, explanation of the disconfirmation. The cataclysm had been called off. The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.

And here’s Lehrer:

But then Keech received a new telegram from outer space, which she quickly transcribed on her notepad. “This little group sitting all night long had spread so much light,” the aliens told her, “that god saved the world from destruction. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” It was their stubborn faith that had prevented the apocalypse.

Again, what’s so odd is how totally unnecessary this is; why not just write, “But then Keech received a new telegram from outer space, which she quickly transcribed on her notepad. ‘Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room,’ the aliens said. It was as if, Festinger wrote later, ‘[t]his little group sitting all night long had spread so much light that god saved the world from destruction’”?

***

One last note: When I was looking for Lehrer’s Wired post on Festinger earlier this week, I typed “jonah lehrer” festinger keech “prophecy fails” into Google. One of the first results that popped up was a Science Blogs piece Lehrer had written on February 11, 2008 titled “Cognitive Dissonance: A Mitt Romney Case Study.” There were more sloppy mistakes in that post (it’s Jon, not John, Stewart), but what’s most notable about it is that — and I’m betting most of you have guessed this already — more than half of 2010 Wired Lehrer’s blog post had been lifted from this earlier piece, word for word.

Since Monday, I’ve spoken with about a dozen people who know Lehrer in one capacity or another. A theory that several have raised is that when the 2008 publication of How We Decide made Lehrer a superstar — with Colbert Report appearances, huge speaking fee paydays, and bylines in the country’s top glossy magazines and newspapers — he became overwhelmed and started to cut corners. But the simultaneously pervasive and picayune journalistic misconduct cited above — and remember, that’s all in a single blog post that’s roughly half as long as the one you’re reading —  doesn’t illustrate sloppiness or corner-cutting. It illustrates a writer with a remarkable arrogance: The arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater, or a little easier for himself. This is not the work of someone who lost his way; it’s the work of someone who didn’t have a compass to begin with.

^ Lehrer did, in fact, blurb The Panic Virus, on the request of our shared agent.

Further reading

* In late June, Carl Zimmer, Deborah Blum, David Quammen, Jack Shafer and I did a three-part roundtable about` Lehrer. That can be found here.

* Around the same time, I used the earlier revelations about Lehrer as a peg for a Salon.com piece on devising a scale for judging journalistic malfeasance.

` EDIT, 10:35 am, 8/3/12: This sentence initially read, “did a three-part roundtable able Lehrer.” Thanks to Jag Bhalla, author of I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, for the correction.

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