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Jonah Lehrer’s fall raises important questions about journalism, science and intellectual properties. It also raises metaquestions: How well are we raising questions about Jonah Lehrer? In a short post about Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace Tuesday, Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote “we now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized.” Exhibit A: Paul Tullis’ defense of Lehrer, which The New York Observer published Wednesday. Tullis was Lehrer’s editor at Seed Magazine, and he says “I find it an unfair double-standard that something Lehrer falsely attributed to Bob Dylan — which is essentially accurate, even if it isn’t technically — has cost him his job.”
“Tullis’s piece is great entertainment, proof that these days you can get someone to write absolutely anything,” Erik Wemple writes in The Washington Post.
In fact, you can get someone to write in the voice of Bob Dylan. Writing for Vice, Gavin Haynes does a remarkable job of capturing Dylan’s counter-intuitive BSing, imagining how he might respond to Lehrer. (It doesn’t top Bill Wyman’s fake letter from Keith Richards, but perhaps nothing ever will):
There’s this bit that’s been bandied about in the press, where you took a quote from Dont Look Back: “I just write them. There’s no great message.” And added a third sentence of your own: “Stop asking me to explain.” Well there was your first beginner’s mistake, my friend. Because I never add third sentences to any of my quotes underlining and expanding the two sentences that have gone before them. I let those two sentences stand and fall on their own merit. Third sentences are not what Bob Dylan’s about. A third sentence is like a guy with three legs or something.
Curtis Brainard argues against reading too much into Lehrer or fabulists like Jayson Blair. Those people are “outliers—not products of the system, but random aberrations,” he writes, despite the handy way they fit into media critiques.
Most journalists, even the fame seekers, play by the rules or commit relatively minor (albeit punishable) offenses despite the pressures of their job and the general expectations of society.
Sam Harris, who like Lehrer is a neuroscientist with a gift for explanation, says he didn’t know Lehrer or his work too well, but he “had seen enough to worry that he could get carried away by his talent for giving a journalistic polish to the research of others.” Harris says he’s seen cases like Lehrer’s before, where “otherwise ethical people … do not seem to realize how quickly and needlessly lying can destroy their relationships and reputations.”
Lehrer was an idol to Clayton Lord, who blogs about audiences for the arts, and for him the damage hits home more:
By relying on scientific findings, by pulling difficult, jargony papers into the mainstream with patient and enthusiastic explanation, by placing the role of the creativity in the functioning of the brain, and both the brain and creativity at the center of what makes us human, Lehrer in ways large and small was an ally to the arts field. Whether he meant to or not, he fought against the marginalization of what we do by attempting over and over to explain the particular work that our work was doing. …
And now, because he needed to tack on a few emphatic quotes, because he needed to not let the words of one of the great poets of our time sit as they were, that book has been pulled from shelves, removed from e-book stores, and its author shunned.
Lord points to a Lehrer blog post from 2006 as particularly rich, since it quotes Abraham Lincoln on deception:
“You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.”
While we’re in the realm of poetic irony, Reason posted a video interview with Lehrer, in which he said he got into journalism “because I sucked at being a scientist” but returned to science as a subject matter because he “missed the hardness of fact.”
Among many of the hard facts surrounding Lehrer right now, people who attended Meeting Professional International’s World Education Conference in St. Louis can return his books for a full refund, Harvey Chipkin reports. (They’re in good company: Lehrer’s publisher ran an ad telling booksellers it’ll refund them in full for returned copies of “Imagine.”) Lehrer spoke at the conference Sunday.
A handful of trade press at MPI, including this reporter, spoke with Jonah Lehrer at a press conference shortly after his speech during the opening session. Although it was just the day before the scandal broke, the 31-year-old author gave no indication that he knew what was about to happen.
While Lehrer seemed comfortable throughout the press conference, he was vague when asked where he got the statistic about 30% more business conferences since the invention of Skype, referring to “a Harvard economist.”
Cindy D’Aoust, MPI’s interim CEO, told Chipkin the organization “faced a speaker issue earlier this year when a presenter from a previous WEC contacted the organization and said a speaker scheduled for this year was using material from the earlier session.”
It was investigated and, despite similarity in the titles, was found to be different.
D’Aoust said choosing speakers could be a complex matter.