Plagiarism, more fake interviews in Jonah Lehrer’s books

Michael C. Moynihan, the journalist who discovered that Jonah Lehrer had fabricated quotations from Bob Dylan and misquoted others in his book “Imagine,” says he’s found more problems:

As I mentioned, I only looked at the Dylan chapter in Imagine, and nothing else. I’ve since had a cursory look at a few other chapters (including in his previous book, How We Decide), no more than a few hours of checking and a few emails [to] people mentioned by Lehrer–and I found fake interviews, quotes that can’t be located, and plagiarism. So while one can reasonably debate how serious a crime it is to fudge a handful of Dylan quotes (pretty serious, if you ask me), always remember: no one ever does this kind of thing once, or just in one chapter.

Moynihan later tweeted an example from “How We Decide” in which Lehrer attributed a quote to an interview he conducted with the pilot. The quote actually appears to have been modified from a speech given by the pilot.

After admitting he lied, Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker earlier this week.

Former Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler asks the central question: Why?

Cheaters such as Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke claimed to have caved under the pressure to perform on a big stage. Lehrer, the boy wonder who’d become a media darling, highly paid keynote speaker, The New Yorkers’ next star, likely felt the same. There’s a bit of the old Peter Principle involved here, where people like Lehrer fear they’ve been promoted beyond their levels of competence and must cheat to stay there.

But I think that Hamilton Nolan had it right in Gawker when he said the primary explanation is simply that “Jonah Lehrer doesn’t know how to do journalism.” Put bluntly, Lehrer isn’t a journalist. Yes, the publications where his work appeared employed journalists. And what he wrote most of the time looked like journalism. But he wasn’t a journalist. And despite his years of elite education, he didn’t learn the most fundamental lessons of journalism.

Jayson Blair, who was a trained journalist turned fabulist, empathizes with Lehrer, he told The Huffington Post:

I think we underestimate how much pressure there is out there for young people to perform at a certain level. A lot of this is self-inflicted pressure.

In the L.A. Times, Meghan Daum suggests some of that pressure is cultural.

Jonah Lehrer was rewarded for making complicated ideas seem simple and appealing, for making people feel smarter than they are by making things like neuroscience and the works of Proust seem easier to grasp than they are.

But his downfall is not his alone. What has also collapsed is our collective tolerance for complexity, our appetite for concepts that can’t be captured in catchy book titles or appropriated for corporate mantras and self-help seminars. In the wake of all that, should we really be surprised when a writer opts for a made-up Dylan quote over the real thing?

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has stopped selling “Imagine” and has offered retailers refunds for their unsold copies. I’ve asked the company how it will respond to the news about “How We Decide,” a New York Times bestseller in hardback and paperback.

Related: How to protect against journalism malpractice like Jonah Lehrer’s | 4 warning signs that a promising young writer may be developing dangerous habits | Jayson Blair on Jonah Lehrer fabrications: ‘There’s probably more than what we’ve seen so far’ | ‘It’s hard to start at the top,’ says Sharon Waxman of Jonah Lehrer | WNYC: No reason to believe that Jonah Lehrer’s work for ‘Radiolab’ is compromised

Julie Moos contributed to this article.

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  • Anonymous

    Bill, I am reading “Islands of the Damned.”

    I found a couple of passages to be relevant to special skills in language. After all, we are still more or less in the Old Stone Age of English teaching.

    I enclose my system for learning the past verb elements and developing strength in memory.

    I mean page 51 in “Mortarman,” where Burgin narrates how: “I could put that mortar together and get it on target faster than anybody.”

    And page 69, in “Green Hell,” on Shofner: “He unholstered his .45 and shot one, two, three, four, five times, leaving a perfect V pattern over the bull’s-eye… I think you could have taken a ruler and not a shot would have been out of line.”

  • Anonymous

     If pedestrian writing style is a pathological condition, there are a lot of really sick journalists out there. I doubt that “sharp tense texture or good clusters of adverbial subordination” will help much.

  • Jeanne Berry

    Well… it WAS titled “Imagine”. First clue?

  • Anonymous

    I didn’t go to j-school. I learned the business ground-up, from filing clips in the library to cops, courts, the works.
    Whatever I didn’t learn about ethics from a liberal arts education I learned in the newsroom, story by story, by hanging around, listening, getting lectures from a tough city editor, and chewing over issues with colleagues at lunch, dinner.
    Over the years I saw firsthand about a half dozen colleagues fired for plagiarism and making up quotes. In all but one case, they were young journalists who were considered on track to superstardom.  They had j-school behind them. They had the confidence and high expectations of management. What they didn’t have was years of newsroom apprenticeship, of give-and-take with colleagues.
    We form our ethics, not just from classroom theory and professional codes, but from the advice, warnings, best-practices, and sharp criticisms of other writers who have traveled the same path.

  • Anonymous

    Whoaaah! Too fast for me!
    “What about Dylan? Why is he held to another standard? Is there no back-bone in academia that calls what he is: also a fabulist.”
    Are we talking about Bob Dylan, here? The song writer, the entertainer? And we’re holding him to journalists’ standards?
    Clearly I’ve got to go back and re-read this stuff. I’ve missed something.

  • Mike Siroky

    I was fortunate to have a great J100 professor at Indiana University. He was the school’s dean and absolutley loved journalism, where we started and how we came to be what we are now. That class alone would have taught the cheaters not to cheat. and it was the first of the requireds at IU. Yes, a good education will help you all the rest of your life.

  • New Citizen

    So many questions that no one is talking about. There should be a center devoted to study issues with digital age issues, such as this by Lehrer and others like Glass and Blair. The Center for Study of Humans who think they can get away. This should be based in LA, just across the Shulman House. What about books that are bought (and have margin notes)? What about libraries that have copies? What about people who have wasted time? What about people who have put blurbs on his book, like Gladwell and Foer? What about New Yorker, now it is going to be referred to as a lazy-magazine that did not know. Finally, what about Lehrer? Will he get another chance like Blair as a life coach? Will Lehrer be the new TV doctor on matters related to journalistic integrity? What about Dylan? Why is he held to another standard? Is there no back-bone in academia that calls what he is: also a fabulist. Dylan got the Presidential Medal by Obama. Will he return it after he is exposed of what he is? Did Dylan read Lehrer? Did Jeff Rosen (an actor in this episode) read Lehrer’s 1st chapter? What about Columbia? Will it investigate what Lehrer did while he was there? What about his research papers in the lab? What about Oxford? Will his work be re-examined? What about his application essays? There needs to be a vigorous examination of ALL-THINGS-LEHRER for a few weeks so that we can have a foundation for the Center for Study of Humans who think they can get away I mentioned earlier. The investigative essay should be published in New Yorker. Also, Michael Mohniyan should get a pulitzer for his work on Lehrer. There is no other justification. He did what no one else did. We must reward such brave people.

  • Miu Luoi

    t can’t sign in

  • Miu Luoi

    t can’t sign in

  • huy dong
  • huy dong
  • Nancy Weil

    I think that the “pressure” argument is excuse making and I also find the claim very thin that the issue in Lehrer’s case is that he isn’t really a journalist. Plenty of other people who didn’t go to J school write for magazines and news organizations and don’t make stuff up.

    The lack of an ethical compass sounds like a truer explanation to me. That and a hellacious amount of hubris. You have to really have that full up to fudge quotes repeatedly and think that you won’t eventually be caught. At some point, it even passes into pathological behavior.

    In the one instance I experienced in the past where I worked with another reporter who was eventually found out to have made up quotes and other scene-setting details, various of us were suspicious that this particular reporter was making up quotes and reported our suspicions, with our strong reasons why we thought that, to editors, all but one of whom accused us of professional jealousy instead of really listening to our worries and why we had them.

    So, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn along the way in any such case that similar suspicions were expressed and treated in the same manner. That’s a big problem in the news-business culture — those who get put on that superstar fast track are treated differently and given way more allowances than they should be. In the instance I know of first hand, all of us who tried to get something done to stop the fabrications are still working as journalists, while the liar is not, and the only editor still editing is the one who took us seriously. That may be the biggest lesson of all from that experience.

  • Glenn Fleishman

    Folks are being too kind here. The basic standards of academia at any well-run institution teach about plagiarism, original thoughts, and citation in the liberal arts, and in the honest measurement and presentation of objectively discovered facts in the sciences. If an institution of higher learning offers zero insight on that, it’s not doing its job.

    Lehrer was clearly engaging in a behavior he had found worked and was never caught at it, and lacks an internal ethical compass combined with a knowledge of practice that prevented him from continuing. At some point, you can’t turn back, but that point was long, long, long before any books came out.

    Would love to see his college thesis, if he had one.

  • Bas Kast

    I have started reading “Imagine!”, and I am quite disturbed by the
    way Jonah Lehrer deals with science and scientific evidence.

    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 (, 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.”

    (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”

    But things get worse. The second review ( 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
    scientific evidence is, to say the least, ambivalent and not so clear at

    Another example of Lehrer’s way of dealing with “reality” can be found here:

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    There are many pathologies of writing in Jonah Lehrer’s work, some easy to see, others deeper.
    It is surprising that he has been praised as being a good writer, because his text does not show features such as sharp tense texture or good clusters of adverbial subordination that you see in the first chapter (“Awakening”) of Antonio Damasio’s “Self Comes to Mind.”
    Beyond the pedestrian writing style we have the lack of insight.
    Chapter 3 of “Imagine” (“The Unconcealing”) on working memory is a good example.
    What emerges from Mark Ashcraft’s “Cognition” (probably the best introduction to the field) is that the tradition of experiments is not especially impressive for working memory. I would argue that such experiments are in severe arrested development.
    Cognitive scientists should design teaching experiments for memory and language that would penetrate the Columbia pathologies of shaky English, poor handling of evidence, and weak comprehension.
    If Lehrer got an honours undergraduate degree from Columbia, how did he manage to do so without his pathologies of cognition being discovered?
    Why has Eric R. Kandel not taken more responsibility for commenting on Lehrer’s misadventures? Lehrer worked in his lab.
    How could Antonio Damasio have praised Lehrer for his “insightful” book, “How We Decide?” Damasio also thanked Lehrer for his reactions or suggestions in “Self Comes to Mind.”

  • Anonymous

    I’m not a journalist, but I know that you don’t make up quotes and interviews. I’m so sad about this.