Jonah Lehrer’s missing compass

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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60 Responses to Jonah Lehrer’s missing compass

  1. Angela Chen says:

    I’ve been keeping up with each year “Jonah Lehrer lied here too” post and it just makes me sad, sad, sad. Thanks for this, though—it’s interesting to see how far back this stretches and how it’s not necessarily a result of the pressure and expectations (though that must have been a part) but also of an intrinsic arrogance.

  2. Angela says:

    Reading this, and clearly not having kept up to date with the ‘Lehrer plagiarized from himself’ debate (which I thought was ridiculous, but I’m not a journalist, so maybe you are ethically required to state the same point of view in different phrasing and turn of words, least it be mistaken for the same point of view and never use your own writing more than once), I’m wondering is this post really necessary.

    How do you know he didn’t get the quotes from someone who quoted the book? Or a different edition of the book? Or is transcribing from the book in another language? Maybe this has a simple and honest explanation. But if you
    decide to bring attention to this issue again, you’d best not use the same turn of phrase to describe your opinion again, even if your opinion remains the same.

    • Jeremiah says:

      Re ‘Lehrer plagiarized from himself’, he literally plagiarized it, which is quite different from speaking about the same topic different words. Freelance magazine writing is typically owned by the outlet that pays the writer to write it. If I write an article for Outside magazine and republish it in Time, surely you can see how I’ve (a) been paid twice for work that I’ve done once, and (b) stolen material for use in the second job that no longer belongs to me, just as much as if it had been written by another? Magazines typically don’t like running book excerpts as original journalism, either; if they want to publish an excerpt from a book, they pay differently and announce it appropriately.

  3. Caroline says:

    Angela, are you Jonah’s . . . mom?

    For the record, no, reusing 300 of your own words from one blog post to another is not ethical under any circumstances. What if a novelist you loved published a new novel where 50% was repeated verbatim from a previous novel? Or an anthology of crosswords where half the puzzles were reprints from a previous anthology you’d paid for? Sheesh.

  4. David Pearce says:

    I am interested in your post and think it’s very good and very worthwhile. It appeals to my obsession (?) for exactitude.

    I’m not a journalist, so I just don’t know about this seeming fever to, in my words, “fill the page”, or the other idiom, “publish or perish”.

    Where I agree with you most is where you say the invented & conflated quotes were unnecessary.

    I don’t understand it. If I were a nonfiction writer, I couldn’t stand myself if I made stuff up. I mean, where’s the usefulness in that? On the other hand, if one finds they have a way with words and an imagination, write novels, and no one gets hurt.

    Thanks for your writing.

  5. Neuroskeptic says:

    The 12.01 thing could be excused as a reasonable guess – presumably, they didn’t start worrying when the fast clock hit 12.04, they started worrying at 12.01… although still, why not just say so.

    But Lehrer also says that the cultists started crying at 12.01, which is exactly what Festinger says they didn’t do: “Midnight had passed and nothing had happened… 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.”

  6. Actually, Caroline, the issue is transparency of such re-use, combined with expectations of one’s employer — in Jonah’s case, The New Yorker clearly expected new original work, not reworkings of older posts from his Wired days. In theory, a novelist COULD re-use turns of phrase, paragraphs, etc in a new work if s/he chose, provided s/he clearly made note of that fact so the reader was informed of this fact. This might not be the best route to novelistic success, but it’s not inherently unethical. :)

    I have used my own blog for many years as a kind of “writing lab,” with material from several posts eventually getting reworked into my books, for instance. On rarer occasions, a magazine article might be reworked or updated for book purposes. If this is clearly noted/acknowledged (which it was), there’s nothing unethical about it.

    And sometimes there is explicit permission to republish or rework older material. When I moved my blog to Scientific American, they didn’t want to deal with transferring the substantial archives of 40+ new bloggers, so we were explicitly told we could re-post older material, either as is, or reworked (which is what I usually do), as part of our monthly post requirements. Most of us indicate this with internal links, a special icon at the start of the post, and/or a note at the end of the post (or any combination thereof).

    Science is a slow-moving endeavor. Something I wrote about six years ago invariably makes the news again, and I can draw upon that earlier work to provide useful context to the news story du jour. I don’t think that makes me “unethical.”

  7. Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    reusing 300 of your own words from one blog post to another is not ethical under any circumstances

    Why not? A novelist is allowed the liberty to make up their own facts, dialog and plot. Repeating 50% of a book verbatim would indicate extreme laziness.

    In non-fiction, you have to explain the facts, quote others accurately, and keep flights of fancy out of the text. In addition, you have to keep the text grammatical and structured coherently so you make the points you want to make. There are a limited number of ways to do this without resorting to using less than optimal structure and wording.

    If Leher had explained that he had covered the material “there” and was summarizing, expanding, or taking a different slant on it “here”, would that have been OK? Or bluntly wrote, “As I have explained before … blah” and repeated his earlier work with a link to it.

  8. Nils says:

    Dear Seth,

    I think you are pointing out an important thing: A method of working (“The Lehrer Method”) that reveals an utter disrespect for depicting reality accurately.

    I have started reading “Imagine!”, and I am quite disturbed by the way Jonah Lehrer deals with science and scientific evidence. Just to give you another example:

    In the first part of the book, Jonah Lehrer repeatedly states that creative insights occur in the right brain. A brief fact-checking clearly demonstrates how one-sided – and ultimately wrong – this conclusion is.

    In fact, there are currently two major reviews on the topic of creativity and the brain, which is not exactly a lot, and I guess, Jonah Lehrer must (or at least should have) known both reviews, both are from the year 2010, so before “Imagine!” was published.

    In this review (http://www.harford.de/arne/articles/PB%20Reprint.pdf), the authors state:

    (1) “In sum, the EEG data on divergent thinking
    fail to substantiate the notion of lateralization in creativity for either
    cerebral hemisphere.”

    As well as:

    (2) “With the possible exception of two studies
    implicating the right prefrontal cortex (Folley & Park, 2005; Howard-
    Jones, Blakemore, Samuel, Rummers, & Claxton, 2005), none of the
    other 12 studies in this group can be viewed as supporting a dominant
    role for the right hemisphere, in part or whole (Blom et al., 2008;
    Carlsson, Wendt, & Risberg, 2000; Chavez-Eakle, Graf-Guerrero,
    Garcia-Reyna, Vaugier, & Cruz-Fuentes, 2007; Fink, Grabner, et
    al., 2009, Experiment 2; Gibson, Folley, & Park, 2009; Goel &
    Vartanian, 2005; Hansen, Azzopardi, Matthews, & Geake, 2008; Hori
    et al., 2008; Jung, Gasparovic, et al., 2009; Jung, Segall, et al., 2009;
    Moore et al., 2009; Sieborger, Ferstl, & von Cramon, 2007).”

    But things get worse. The second review (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20488210) even claims the following:

    “(1) creative cognition does not “reside” in the right brain – in contrast the best evidence so far supports a left frontal locus if any”

    Troughout the book, Lehrer repeatedly says exactly the opposite without ever mentioning that the fact is in dispute, i.e. that the scientific evidence is, to say the least, ambivalent and not clear at all.

    Another example of Lehrer’s way of dealing with “reality” can be found here: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/do_the_math/2012/03/how_creativity_works_what_broadway_musicals_really_teach_us_about_collaboration_.html.

    I don’t know. Added up (and we might be just scratching the surface …), I guess I agree with you, we indeed do get the picture of someone who had, I would say, a rather peculiar way of “reporting” on science.

    Thanks for your post.

    Regards, Nils

  9. Nils says:

    Ps. This, of course, is a bold statement (that should be delivered with some evidence): http://www.twitlonger.com/show/ilk1jt

    • Parasite_mnookin says:

      Hey Nils, don’t worry about evidencing your bold statement or above research. (no one is reading it. Great reporting though!!!

  10. Oliver says:

    Wow. I guess I have encountered people before that I have suspected of such a modus operandi–in science, in fact–but never gathered such unequivocal support as you have. It feels like a public service. I have a macabre curiosity now to know what in Lehrer’s world view makes his approach feel OK to him. Is it to psycopathy as microfinance is to finance, or what?

  11. Nils says:

    Here seems to be some evidence that he faked an interview in another book (“How we decide”): http://www.twitlonger.com/show/illeo6

  12. Nils says:

    Also interesting:

    When I emailed Lehrer to point out this mistake, 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.

    See http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pyramids-meaning/201208/jonah-lehrer-charmed-me-then-blatantly-lied-me-about-science

    • Parasite_mnookin says:

      Again Nils, your reporting skills are simplying blowing my mind!

      ( If I cut and paste and post links can I be just as successful as you?)

  13. NM says:

    A sad tale of very poor, entirely inexcusable practices & the picture gets still worse. Awful. I do hope someone is keeping an eye on Lehrer’s mental health however….I wouldn’t say that about a corrupt despot (for example), but this case is a very public fall for grace of a young “star” of sci writing, with understandable and appropriate interrogation by many of his esteemed peers who once celebrated his efforts as a creative sci blogger & writer. Trust is broken, celebrity has a dark side, & public shamings have personal consequences.

    • Parasite_mnookin says:

      I wouldn’t really call these guys “peers” . NM are you familiar with the Hookworm? They feast on their hosts poop… It’s more like that.

    • Parasite_mnookin says:

      Oh and “celebrated his efforts” should be changed to “asked for favors”.

      (book blurb anyone?)

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  15. NM says:

    Woops. “from grace”

  16. The thing that alarms me the most about Jonah’s dishonesty is that the public relies on factual interpretation from popular science writers; because the majority of us who read pop science articles aren’t trained in the methods of reading science articles directly. I appreciate those writers who do their best to present accurate retellings of the science so that we can understand what has been discovered or disproven. Popular science writing is often the only insight we get into what is being discovered.

    It’s also a reminder of how valuable good skepticism is.

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  18. Kim says:

    Have you noticed that the beginning of chapter three of imagine paraphrases Josh Foer’s 2005 Slate article about Adderall? Oddly, Foer blurbed Imagine, so perhaps he thinks it’s okay–or maye he just didn’t read it. But the failure, as far as I can see, to acknowledge Foer anywhere makes it significant misconduct by ordinary academic standards.

  19. Perhaps he’s a charlattan and a fraud. And perhaps he’s someone with a very good long term memory, which served him well as a student and Rhodes scholar, but hasn’t served him as well as a journalist.

    Had he come up through journalism a little more slowly, he would have worked for more magazines, and undergone enough fact checks to start mistrusting his memory more. He would eventually have learned that the fudging (making up lies to cover the mistakes) was totally unecessary. Journalists, especially young journalists make stupid, slopy mistakes all the time. That’s why fact checks are done. Experienced journalists, or people who have gone through J school, develop those skills as second nature. Sadly, book and blog writers, like Lehrer don’t get enough time working magazine editors to develop those skills.

    As for the smooshing together of quotes. Is this really fraudulence? Could it be a bad habit brought on by the constant pressure to condense that professional blogging has brought about.. It’s a blog. It’s conversational. Ideally it’s short. I don’t think it’s uncommon, or “unethical” for bloggers to cut down on unecessary transitions. It would be better if they didn’t. It would be better if every blog kept to the same rigorous standards of high paying magazine work, and/or peer reviewed journals. But they don’t.

    Unless evidence of significant, not “uncecessary” fraudulence emerges, I remain far more disturbed by these vaguely self promoting articles listing Lehrer’s transgressions. This is the kind of stuff that in the olden days of journalism would have worked itself out on the cocktail party circuit. Lehrer’s editor would have given him a stern talking to, and he would have been allowed to mature into a more seasoned, rigorous journalist.

    Now journalists seem content to destroy each others careers just for the hits it’s going to get them.

    And I find that very sad.

    • Seth Mnookin says:

      Juliet –

      In the example I’m talking about above, Lehrer didn’t “smooth together” quotes — he took a quote, combined it with a previous author’s description of that quote, and put it all together in one neat, inaccurate package.

      As for my post being “vaguely self-promoting,” I’m confused as to what you think I’m gaining here. I don’t get paid for this blog; my continued presence on PLOS is not dependent on page views; I don’t need to meet any kind of post quota. I both enjoyed Lehrer’s writing and, in my limited interactions, thought he was a nice person. I would be much happier if this was all a few innocent mistakes.

      I know I’m not the first writer you’ve accused of being predatory: You seemed to say something similar about Michael Moynihan, the author of the Tablet article that initially uncovered Lehrer’s lies and deceptions. You also defended the deceptions uncovered by Moynihan (“There wasn’t a substantive quote in that entire article. It’s mostly words here and there“), excused it as the understandable pitfalls of the genre (“Essayists mess up more, because they have more material to juggle and remember. Have to judge them in that context“), and said the real tragedy was that Lehrer had to suffer any consequences (“Because what’s sad is that let this guy get to him. More seasoned journalist would have simply cleaned up in second edition“).

      Among the people who disagree with you is Lehrer himself. “The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes,” he said in a statement. “The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.” He understands that what he did is wrong — why can’t you?

      • Yeah, I’m critical of Moynihan. There’s something off about that article. Never once did he mention that he picked up the book BECAUSE he was writing an article on plagiarism (as he is now indicating in post interviews.)

        In his Tablet article he presents himself as merely a curious Dylan fan, with such an amazing memory for quotes, that a few words set off major warning signals. Bells that deeply compelled him to hunt down just where Dylan might have said “me” instead of “that.”

        Really? Did he tell Lehrer that he was checking up on his veracity, not completing his Dylan archive? Because if he did then that’s a story. But if he didn’t, then it’s just gotcha journalism.

        All this righteousness from the former managing editor of Vice (Here. I am guilty of lobbing a foul. I thought he still held that position), the magazine that just hired Jose Canseco as a columnist.

        When it comes to ethics, different journalists hear different warning bells. Some journalists are made uneasy by sloppy facts. Other, like me, get uncomfortable with the odor of a disingenous agenda.

        All we know is that within hours of this article being published, Lehrer launched into damage control. We don’t know if there are other quotes that he fabricated. Or if the only one is the one line about Dylan having a “feeling.”

        I don’t know. And because I don’t know enough, if Tablet were my magazine I would have sent Moynihan back to the drawing board to actually find evidence of significant fraudulence before I made the decision to wreck his career.

        But that’s just me.

        One of the problems that hasn’t been discusssed is the mechanics of different genres. Science magazines check numbers, studies and statistics. High culture magazines (as you know writing for VF) check every word of every quote. Very few magazines have the resources these days to do it well, which is why it’s so easy for genre mushing journalists to slip between the cracks.

        Books don’t get fact checked. Newspaper journalists rarely get fact checked anymore. Essayists until very recently, never got fact checked. When they do, editors usually understand that essayists tend more than other writers to work from memory. Good associative memory is what makes them essayists. It’s their greatest strength, but it’s also a tremendous weakness. Because their memories are often not as good as they believe. They are the writers who most need to get fact checked, but they never do because what makes them saleable is their storytelling skill.

        I’m not saying they shouldn’t be fact checked. And I’m not saying that the level of sloppiness that Lehrer obviously developed is a standard we should accept. I’m just trying to put things in context of what I know as a working journalist.

        That you’re not getting paid for this blog is irrelevant. Journalism ethics is your field. So your blog is your platform.

        I’m uneasy with the the level of shame Lehrer is being subjected to. And, yup, I think you’re contributing to the pile on, instead of saying anything new.

        There was nothing malicious in what Lehrer did. Maybe it was laziness. Maybe it was lack of the surveillance and mentorship journalists used to get.

        Or maybe he’s a total charlattan. And everybody in New York knows that except me.

        I don’t have enough facts yet to make that call.

        But if I had to go on the facts that you and other bloggers are presenting, this is lack of rigour, not anything near the level of “deception” that it’s being made out as.

        If smooshing together quotes, and fudging about mistakes is the worst that journalists are doing these days, then it seems to me that’s something to be celebrated.

        Journalists ripping each others throats out for whatever reasonably well paying work remains, is not the party I want to be at.

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  21. Kim says:

    Juliet, read the Foer Adderall article side by side with the opening of chapter 3 of Imagine. It’s flat-out plagiarism of another writer, with no acknowledgment anywhere.

  22. Kim says:

    Yes, slate 2005, easy google. He takes all Foer’s examples and anecdotes: Auden, Kerouac, Erdos etc. unless they both took it all from Wikipedia or something.

    • Thing is, Foer blurbed Lehrer’s book. His words: “Jonah Lehrer is one of the most talented explainers of science that we’ve got. What a pleasure it is to follow his investigation of creativity and its sources. Imagine is his best book yet.”

      So either he didn’t read it, and so didn’t notice the plagiarism. Or they both plagiarized same source. Probably not wikipedia.

      Hope it’s the first because that would make a way more entertaining scandal.

      The thing I resent most about this one, is that it’s so mind numbingly boring.

      • Steve says:

        If you’re shocked that someone might have provided a blurb for a book without having read it, then you haven’t been around the book publishing biz very much. It happens day in and day out, often in the form of sending a proposed blurb quote to the supposed blurb writer for approval. In other words, not only does the blurber not read the book in question, he often doesn’t even write the quote being attributed. He mere OKs it.

        • vultures says:

          Good points Juliet and Steve. It seems to me that this common practice of reviewing books/articles without reading them is morally worse that the sins Lehrer has committed.

  23. Kim says:

    I saw the Foer blurb. Interestingly, Malcolm Gladwell blurbed him too, and there seems to be some lifting from Gladwell also–though Gladwell has said he doesn’t consider it wrongful. I find the whole thing a little interesting because it’s teaching me something about standards for popular writing. Self plagiarism, in terms of repackaging articles as a book, is about the only way law professors ever write books, so that didn’t seem so serious to me. But taking someone else’s article without acknowledgment is bad, i would think, although in fairness he seems not to have much in the way of footnotes for anything. Is that acceptable practice for popular writing? I’m genuinely curious about whether Joshua Foer would think it’s okay (which isn’t quite the same question as what he’d say about it).

    • These are interesting questions.

      There are differences in standards, depending on genre, readership, countries. Obviously out and out fabrication and making up of stories is always unacceptable. And I don’t dispute that Lehrer’s standards are unprofessional. But I would also argue that a large chunk of the problem is the deterioration of professional checks and balances, which has been happening for years.

      Popular science writers draw from the same studies and experiments, so repeating those studies is not plagiarism as long at the conclusions drawn are part of a reasonably original point. Gladwell often gets accused of recycling other people’s material. But part of the job of a popular science writer is to take work by specialists and shape it for the general reader. And Gladwell would recognize this as Lehrer’s job too. As would Foer.

      Then there’s the whole problem of blogging. It used to be that blogs were held more to the standards of conversation. Because they were produced on the fly, quotes were loser, mistakes more likely to happen, discovered and corrected in conversation. Now with the era of the professional blogger, standards are tighter, but also quite unreasonable. Especially because so many bloggers are expected to be original, flawless, but also work for free or close to free (certainly compared to what journalists used to be paid).

      Lehrer was unusual because he wrote such long blogs. They were like short essays. He made his reputation on those as much as his books. This wasn’t a Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass being hired as an intern at magazines and a national newspaper where work is rigorously vetted. But he was more experienced, so it is fair to expect more of him.

      Still, this is someone who wrote regularly, over the course of several years and wrote three books, before this month when it was “discovered” he was a fraud. And sadly, I think this says as much about journalism as it says about him.

      Nobody worried too much about his standards before he got the only decent paying gig in journalism. A “staff” position at The New Yorker, which is really only a one year contract.

      And now suddenly everyone’s reading the books with eagle eyes.

      But welcome to the world of new journalism, where the fights are so big, because the stakes are so small.

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  26. D. says:

    Juliet Waters: Your response to the Lehrer issue is the most intelligent and humane I’ve come across. Thanks. I’m going to pass this on to friends who’ve been following the story. Of course, we were surprised by some of Lehrer’s lapses, but the ensuing feeding frenzy over the fallen writer–now it’s down to lists of names he misspelled–is way more creepy. It smacks more of hallway-monitor opportunism than deep concern for journalist standards.

  27. Juliet Waters Fan says:

    Hey Seth Mnookin,

    Please give your blog over to Juliet Waters.

    Sincerely,
    People who don’t believe in witches

    Submitting comments anonymously is fine; submitting multiple comments on the same thread using different anonymous user names is not. If you’d like to continue to contribute, please stuck with “Parasite_mnookin,” the nom-de-comment you initially chose.
    Thanks,
    Seth

  28. Littleengine says:

    To Juliet Waters: I second D’s comments. Thanks for a clear-headed, kind-hearted perspective.

  29. LD says:

    Ms Waters, I find your enduring sympathy for Lehrer misplaced.

    Lehrer was not merely a journalist reporting scientific findings. Rather he was becoming the go-to spokesperson for neuroscience, and to a lesser degree psychology, and increasingly he positioned himself as a grand synthesizer, someone who, through his ability to not get bogged down in the details, was a man who could see the haloed big picture. Gladwell’s blurb for Imagine suggested Lehrer knows more about science than many scientists.

    But as soon as you start reading Lehrer’s books as serious intellectual tomes they are sadly lacking. The reviews of Imagine in The Guardian, The New Republic and The NYT Book Review all reflected a great annoyance with his work’s lack of rigor and coherence. These reviews highlighted gross over-simplification, sloppiness and a disregard for facts and the complexity of the subject matter, all attributed to laziness and lack of sufficient consideration.

    What the Moynihan story revealed, more in JL’s response than in the original crime perhaps, was the willingness to lie and knowingly mislead. Suddenly the public’s gateway to understand the brain was shown to have an immense disregard for the truth.

    This article, and some of those linked to by Nils, above demonstrate that the guy had left a trail of people who he was supposed to “represent”, people who spend entire careers working on hugely difficult subjects summed up in a single paragraph in Lehrer’s books, scratching their heads at why that paragraph, as good as it sounded, wasn’t quite right.

    As for suggesting that people got the knives out simply because he landed The New Yorker gig will forever be a moot point because his start there coincides with his monumental f’ck-up of the reused blogs.

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  36. vultures! says:

    It’s clear from this debacle who the self righteous vultures are. While there is no doubt that Lehrer made several mistakes (and is punished dearly for them), it’s incredible how nasty human beings are when resources are so limited and a prestigious job is at stake.

    As Steve points out in this thread, “If you’re shocked that someone might have provided a blurb for a book without having read it, then you haven’t been around the book publishing biz very much. It happens day in and day out, often in the form of sending a proposed blurb quote to the supposed blurb writer for approval.”

    The world is full of ‘top’ journalists who review books and articles without reading them!

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