Greg Beato’s “Welcome to the Golden Age of Fact-Checking” is an excellent meditation on the technological and cultural changes that have contributed to our ever-more-transparent society.
But screw it, let’s get to the parts where he nails Jonah Lehrer.
After reading Reason contributing editor Michael C. Moynihan’s story in Tablet about how Lehrer had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in Imagine, I decided to take a look at the book myself. In the midst of its second chapter, I came across a paragraph that felt oddly familiar: It seemed to be a paraphrase of a paragraph that I had written in a piece about Post-It Notes that I’d published in 2005 at a now-defunct magazine called The Rake. Then, I realized that while Lehrer quotes Post-It Notes inventor Art Fry three times in Imagine, he didn’t include any sources for these quotes in the book’s Notes section, nor did he mention that he’d interviewed Fry. (In multiple other instances in Imagine, Lehrer includes a citation in the Notes section when he interviews someone first-hand.) Ultimately, I realized that one of the quotes was quite similar to one that appears in my piece, and another one was identical to one that appears in a Wired article from 2008 that Lehrer did not write.
Lehrer’s agent, Andrew Wylie, told Beato Lehrer “had ‘no memory’ of ever reading my article” and had interviewed Fry. Beato dug a little further into Lehrer’s books “Imagine” and “How We Decide” and found a sentence ripped off from a Boston Globe account of Super Bowl XXXVI, and an instance where Lehrer misrepresents his source material in service of a point he was trying to make.
He also looks at how Lehrer helped enshrine the myth that Pixar’s HQ has only two bathrooms into popular consciousness. The persistence of that bad information shows what “little influence our most heralded journalism franchises really wield now,” Beato writes. But the resources available to any schmo who cares to check whether what she’s reading is true — Beato easily gets in touch with Pixar and finds an article on the building’s construction — are to be celebrated.
Related: Wall Street Journal removes two Jonah Lehrer essays, corrects two others (Poynter) | All of Lehrer’s work should be accompanied by a special symbol “that what you’re reading carries a high likelihood of corruption” (The Washington Post)