Forgive Jonah Lehrer? Not yet

Last year after the unraveling of his serial plagiarism, lies, and falsification of quotes led to Jonah Lehrer’s resignation from The New Yorker and the removal of his book Imagine: How Creativity Works from bookstores, many assumed that he would have the good manners to slink away in shame for a while.

Say_Anything_LEHRERNot so. The thunderclap you heard Thursday night came from science journalists everywhere slapping their foreheads in disbelief at the news that Jonah Lehrer has signed a book contract with Simon & Schuster. Lehrer has turned into John Cusack from Say Anything: he’s the suitor who won’t go away, standing in the rain outside our window with a boom box over his head, imploring us with the lyrics of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (“…the light the heat / in your eyes / I am complete…“). If this were a movie, his pained sincerity would touch us and we would run out for a tearful reunion, but since this is real life, what we instead remember is that when persistent exes don’t accept that you’ve broken up with them for being creeps, they only get creepier.

The chutzpah aside, what maddens and frustrates journalists about Lehrer’s new book deal is its injustice. He violated fundamental tenets of journalism and may have misled readers about the science he described yet he gets another shot at fame, while hordes of honest journalists labor for a fraction of his success, knowing that any one of Lehrer’s mistakes could end their careers. Simon & Schuster probably turned down book offers from some of them the same day it signed Lehrer. Then again, those honest writers wouldn’t have been able to bring so much notoriety to the marketing plan, eh, S&S? Not that anyone suspects such cynicism in your decision.

Nevertheless, isn’t resentment of Lehrer’s new deal mostly driven by petty vindictiveness? Most of us claim to believe in redemption and second chances, so why shouldn’t Lehrer get another shot now, too? Personally, I’ll own up to the ugly feelings. But I also think the valid reasons for outrage go beyond them.

Humans’ sense of justice and mercy for malefactors generally seems to be guided by awareness that those who did wrong are genuinely sorry for their wrongful acts, that they have suffered in proportion to their acts, that where possible they have made restitution to those they harmed, and that they are committed to not repeating their past sins. How does Lehrer stand in those regards?

Is he genuinely sorry? He says he is, but as a serial liar, is he credible? Only a mind reader could know for sure. The exposure of what Lehrer did left me agreeing with Seth Mnookin’s conclusion:

But the simultaneously pervasive and picayune journalistic misconduct […]  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.

And if Lehrer was really that narcissistic and morally adrift then, is he capable of feeling fully sorry for them now? I don’t know. In the speech that he gave for the Knight Foundation last February—for $20,000—Lehrer said he was “profoundly sorry,” but focused on how he was planning to use a new “stricter set of operating procedures” to prevent himself from making the same mistakes again. He sounds less like he’s expressing regret than reprogramming a computer.

What I get from this is that Lehrer doesn’t ultimately care whether we forgive him or believe that he’s sorry. He’s grown beyond that, you guys! He just wants us to read and buy his work.

Has he suffered enough? Not a chance. Lehrer has fallen hard and publicly, but that’s only because he succeeded so long and well with his deceptions while betraying his talents. Remember that the revelations about Lehrer’s self-plagiarism, the first and arguably most minor of his journalistic transgressions, only started coming out early last summer. He didn’t resign from The New Yorker until late July. It’s only three months since Houghton Mifflin Harcourt decided to stop selling his second book, How We Decide. So Lehrer hasn’t spent even a full year in the wilderness—and remember, too, that he pulled down that $20,000 from the Knight Foundation in February. Lehrer has barely been gone from the public eye. Some writers take sabbaticals longer than his exile.

Restitution? Lehrer’s previous publishers, editors, and readers may be willing to let bygones be bygones; that’s between them and him. Yet Lehrer also tarnished the reputation of science journalism and thereby made the job of honest reporters harder. Has he done anything to prove his remorse for that? Did he donate that speaker’s fee to fund the teaching of a journalism ethics program? Has he pledged the earnings from his new book to some other good cause? If he has done any such thing, I applaud him, but I’m not aware of it. Instead, he seems to be moving forward largely as he did in the past, in self-entitled pursuit of what he wants.

Will he do it again? If Simon & Schuster is dumb enough not to vet every word of the new book through an army of fact checkers, then it deserves Lehrer. But I suspect that, whether out of genuine reform or prudent cunning, he will scrupulously avoid making up facts and quotes. In this book.

Indeed, if what ultimately matters is the quality of Lehrer’s work, and not the man’s character, it that might seem to be enough. And we have Lehrer’s own plan for self-improvement, which he outlined in the Knight Foundation speech—that set of stricter operating procedures that would prevent him from lying and plagiarizing and fabricating again despite himself.

Yet in that speech, he presents the implementation of this new system as a work in progress. It’s only four months later. In that little time, has he suddenly made himself trustworthy, in the absence of discipline that he acknowledges he doesn’t yet have? Why does Simon & Schuster believe he’s ready, and why should we?

I also keep coming back to Seth’s criticism, quoted above, that the greatest and most persistent transgression in Lehrer’s work might be his “arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier.” Carl Zimmer put it even better in a smart observation about Lehrer and writers like him:

They find some research that seems to tell a compelling story and want to make that the lesson. But the fact is that science is usually a big old mess.

From the descriptions of the book proposal in Daniel Engber’s Slate column and the gleanings of it I get from other articles, my sense is that Lehrer may already be falling back into his old ways. Engber writes:

It’s a self-help book disguised as a science book that’s dismissive of self-help books.


That is to say, it’s Lehrer doing exactly what he’s done before. He loves to start with straw-man science, using published research to establish some flagrant bit of nonsense—”marriage is a waste of time,” let’s say—so he can batter and abuse it with other, better published research.

Engber’s musings about hints of plagiarism in the book proposal strike me as weak, but it does sound as though Lehrer is sticking with his sloganeering approach, reducing immensely complicated subjects to pat summaries.

(I don’t say that entirely dismissively. Lehrer is a talented writer, and coming up with compelling summaries of scientific discoveries is hard. He’s good at it. When he oversimplifies the science to the point of error, however, the accomplishment is self-defeating.)

Science writing may strive to distill identified truths, but as Carl wrote, the best writing often reveals hard-to-reduce mysteries about the universe and the human experience. Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp calls Lehrer’s book “a meditation on and exploration of love through different prisms — psychological, scientific, historical, literary”—about as vast a topic as any author could choose. It’s titled The Book of Love, for heaven’s sake. Given Lehrer’s record, should I trust the he won’t oversimplify it?

After all, his proposal reportedly contains passages such as this:

Careers fall apart; homes fall down; we give away what we don’t want and sell what we can’t afford. … And yet, if we are lucky, such losses reveal what remains. When we are stripped of what we wanted, we see what we will always need: those people who love us, even after the fall.

That’s not a meditation on the redemptive power of love. That’s a meditation on the redemptive power of other people’s love for him. If Lehrer is drawing on his own experience to enrich this book, shouldn’t he begin with what, other than himself, he loves?

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10 Responses to Forgive Jonah Lehrer? Not yet

  1. Pingback: The genius and the damage done | Galileo's Pendulum

  2. The best way to help reboot the brand of a cheater? Talk about him.

    Lehrer will find his way back into the limelight–however begrudging his colleagues might be–because apart from the hollowed-out corps of journalistic standard-bearers, most people are happier to read the words of a notorious liar than a worthy unknown.

    In the greater scheme of things, the peccadillos of a pop journalist do not matter.

    Welcome back, Mr. Lehrer. May your pop puff continue to dazzle as powerfully as it deludes for many years to come.

  3. Vincent says:

    I think you meant “for $20,000″ and not “for $20,0000″.

  4. curt rice says:

    Since we’re here on PLOS, I think it’s interesting to ask about the relationship between open access and self-plagiarism, an angle I used to discuss the Lehrer case myself: Is self-plagiarism about copyright violation, i.e. about using material that you’ve already sold to a publisher, and then claiming that they’re really your words anyway? Do scientists who re-hash methods sections commit the same crime? Lehrer of course did more than re-use: the first time out wasn’t plagiarism, it was fabrication, which deserves harsh punishment. But the self-plagiarism part of the story is what I find to be of particular principled interest. What do you think?

    • John Rennie says:

      Yes, the self-plagiarism charges are among the most interesting ones—not least because the very idea of self-plagiarism seems rather ludicrous on the face of it. I agree with a point that Ed Yong made, that this sort of plagiarism (if we’re going to consider it that) is primarily an issue between the writer and whoever published the original and copied versions of it. If it doesn’t bother those publishers and editors, and if the text is unobjectionable otherwise, it’s hard to see how readers are any the worse off for it. Also, writers lean on their own older work all the time, and the professional standards of whether old blog posts count as previous publications has probably shifted over time. (Carl Zimmer wrote an honest column in which he made all these points, too.) At the beginning of the Lehrer mess, when self-plagiarism seemed to be the worst of the charges being lobbed at him, I thought it was a ridiculous, ankle-biting complaint to throw at a writer whose work I’d often enjoyed and admired. If the revelations had never mushroomed into anything much worse, I think Lehrer would have come through without a scratch. Unfortunately, that was the first crack in the dam.

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  7. Ram Subramanian says:

    There is something about the Jonah Lehrer case which does not entirely convince me he is wrong. Whom does self-plagiarism hurt really? Not the readers, who buy his book to hear his views (even if they have been previously expressed elsewhere). Nor would I say readers are too bothered by ‘pat summaries’ as you say – I think most of his readers would know a pop science book from a research paper (which lay people don’t read for a reason).
    Maybe misquoting someone is crass. Agreed. But at the end of it all, this is really just coming across as the story of journalistic community devouring one of its own. Envy? Nah, can’t be. Journalists are too good for that, right?

    • John Rennie says:

      Ram, the most important complaints lodged against Lehrer are not simply that he plagiarized himself but that he knowingly oversimplified the science and made up quotes, which means that he lied to his readers and misinformed them, often in ways that substantially overstated the claims of his books’ messages. You may want to chalk up the reaction to professional jealousy, but most of us take cheating and lying to the public seriously.