In recent years, though certainly not recently, many conference attendees have heard Jonah Lehrer speak about how our brains and our personal interactions affect our behaviours in interesting and surprising ways.
During his talk at a Knight Foundation event Tuesday, it was much of the same.
Lehrer cited research and anecdotes to lay out a case for why he fabricated and plagiarized multiple times in his work as a journalist. He mentioned the FBI’s standard operating procedures (SOPs), airplane safety measures, and how some machines and systems are built to “force” their human operators to avoid mistakes, rather than make them.
He also spoke about himself in the context of all the research about why we fail, why we make mistakes, and why we can be blind to them.
Much like before, Lehrer spoke with a seeming command of the subject matter. He made complex ideas simple and engaging. And this time, unlike those before, he added a deeply personal component:
I wanted to understand the mechanics of every lapse, to relive all those errors that led to my disgrace. I wanted to understand so I could explain it to people, so I could explain it in a talk like this, so I could say I found the broken part and that part has a name. My arrogance; my desire for attention; my willingness to take shortcuts (provided I don’t think anyone else will notice); my carelessness, matched with an ability to excuse my carelessness away; my tendency to believe my own excuses. But then, once I came up with this list of flaws, once I began to understand how these flaws led to each of my mistakes, I realized that all of my explanations changed nothing. They cannot undo what I’ve done, not even a little.
It wasn’t worth $20,000, but it was classic Lehrer. And what a troubling thing it was to watch.
Lehrer went looking for answers in the same places he used to mine for his articles and books — research papers, cognitive science, and in seemingly surprising places, such as the FBI. He drew oversimplified and in some cases incorrect conclusions about what he found. Then he packaged it all into a polished story, and cashed a nice cheque in the process.
It’s all too familiar, and worst of all I think Lehrer is completely ignorant of the fact that he fell into his old methods, his old practices, as he worked to try and understand why he did what he did.
Take Lehrer’s example of how a car is built to make a noise when you forget to put on your seat belt. This is meant to “force” you to take the proper action. He compared that to his new commitment to always have his work fact-checked, to adhere to his own set of SOPs meant to combat his seemingly inherent desire to cut corners and lie.
It’s a false comparison.
Forcing mechanisms are meant to guide us to make the right decision. They help remind us and usher us away from an unintentional error. They do nothing for someone who consciously chooses to subvert the system.
Lehrer isn’t the guy who forgot to put on a seat belt and got into an accident. He’s the guy who heard the seat belt reminder dinging and said, “Fuck it, that belt is just going to put wrinkles in my shirt.”
Now, after delving into the body of research about human error and human factors, he feels that a set of his own standard operating procedures, and a policy of always having his work fact-checked, will help ward off what he refers to as his “arrogance” and other flaws.
Well, I pity the fact-checker charged with backstopping Lehrer. He’s unfortunately decided that the final responsibility lies with her, rather than him.
In spite of my deep concerns about the picture he painted of his mistakes and how he plans to avoid them in the future, I didn’t doubt Lehrer’s sincerity during his speech, or the Q&A that followed.
I saw in him someone who at times seems to struggle to contain the nerves bubbling up inside him as he spoke about his failings. I think he is genuinely trying to come to terms with what he did, and to find a path to a better place. I believe his young daughter has helped provide the motivation for him to hold himself to account.
Unfortunately, in the end, he seemed to fall into the exact pattern of behavior he has before. It’s deeply ingrained in the way he works, and the way he makes sense of life and events.
This was driven home when someone asked whether him taking on so many assignments and engagements was a factor in his failings.
“For me the busy-ness was a way to avoid the reckoning,” he said “It’s precisely when you do feel busy and harried and when you don’t have time for” questions “that they’re the most essential.”
Leher hasn’t yet faced his moment of reckoning. It didn’t come from public exposure and disgrace. It wasn’t him being dropped by The New Yorker and Wired or from (until now) the speaking circuit. It isn’t the return to science for study and writing to grapple with his failings.
Jonah Lehrer’s reckoning will come when he’s finally willing to put down the studies, books and papers, turn off the screen, step away from the keyboard and confront himself about why he did what he did. In all honesty, and with genuine compassion, I encourage him to find a good therapist to help with this.
What I learned Tuesday is that until Lehrer is willing to face himself without props and aids, he’ll continue the pattern of self-deception and public deceit.
I guess you could call it his standard operating procedure.