Jonah Lehrer

Writer finds more plagiarism, problems in Jonah Lehrer’s books

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. Read more


Why Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Imagine’ is worth reading, despite the problems

Imagine that you are reading a seriously flawed book. Its flaws have grown into a scandal, so you decide to read it to find out about all the hubbub. As you read, you come across this much-publicized problem, and then that one.

Rather than abandon it in its disgrace, you find yourself engaged and turning the pages, and suddenly your hand grabs for the highlighter to mark up this excellent paragraph about the origins of creativity, and then that one.

You like the book, really like it, but you can’t even recommend it because you don’t want to sound like a sucker, and, besides, the publisher, after sales of 200,000 in hardcover, recalls all the unsold copies. But you find two copies at a local bookstore, and you begin reading it, and liking it more and more. Imagine that.

Imagine that the book I’m describing is called “Imagine,” written by defrocked wunderkind Jonah Lehrer. Imagine that the reader is me.

Lehrer has gotten himself in trouble for at least four alleged – and in some cases proven – literary transgressions: fabrication, plagiarism of others, self-plagiarism (recycling older work), and playing fast and loose with the evidence. He also lied to hide the fact that he had manufactured a quote attributed to Bob Dylan.  Together, the accumulated evidence looks damning. But not all the sins, I am about to argue, are equally grievous. Let’s break them down.

1) To use an old-fashioned newspaper term, Lehrer “piped” a quote from Bob Dylan, a futile and senseless act since his embellishment was easily detected and added nothing to the overall effect.

2) Lehrer was in the habit of re-using earlier work, sometimes word for word, which Puritans have dubbed “self-plagiarism.” To me, this is the most ridiculous of supposed literary sins. Publishers have the right to expect original work. As a reader – I DO NOT CARE (yes, I am yelling). If it’s good stuff, let me have it.

3) The author has been criticized for simplifying the science – in his case neurology – beyond the recognition of scientists. Lehrer, it appears, is no Oliver Sacks, but he knows a lot more about the brain than I do, and I am not embarrassed – whether I’m learning a new musical instrument, a golf swing, or a little brain science – to be led along by baby steps.

4) A related accusation is that Lehrer suffers from an unfettered arrogance that tempts him – as it does us all – to shape reality in support of a kind of conceptual tidiness. If you build your work around the revelation of surprising theories, you need the ability to both show and tell, and there will be an urge – since this is literature and not pure science – to sit on top of the suitcase until it closes.

You would think that these issues, added together, would disqualify the book from my serious attention. Imagine my surprise when they did not.

I am almost embarrassed making the following declaration: the reading of the book “Imagine” helped me understand my world and my craft, and what else can you hope for from a non-fiction book.

In my seeming confusion, I am a victim here not of the author’s legerdemain, but of an esoteric but crucial bit of ancient Catholic theology. I learned it in college when we were studying the sacraments – those outward signs of God’s grace, such as Baptism and the Eucharist. How do these holy rituals work? The Latin phrase – this is from memory, I have been unable to confirm it – is ex opere operato. The translation is awkward: “from the work being worked.”

In plain English, if the minister pours water on the head of the infant and speaks the right words, that child is baptized. And here is the genius: That child is baptized without regard to the moral condition of the minister (thank goodness!). The minister may be a racist, a rapist, or a bank robber. It matters not if the “work” is done.

Flawed authors create books that “work” for the reader. I learned this lesson in a strange place: a limo carrying a small group to a special broadcast of the Oprah Winfrey Show.

On that day Oprah would pillory James Frey for the exaggerations and fabrications in “A Million Little Pieces.” I was invited as a critic of Winfrey’s earlier support for the book. Another man – I never caught his name – was invited to be in the audience and declare that even with its exaggerations, the story, in its gritty depiction of addiction, “worked” for him.

I thought Frey’s book was a bad book, even before the revelations of fraud. I never found the degradation of the narrator compelling or revelatory.

But I think the book “Imagine” is worth something. I know it worked for me in several ways:

  • It confirmed for me that some of the methods I use as a writer and teacher – such as brainstorming or revision – have validity, based on scientific knowledge of how the brain works.
  • It helped me see more clearly the parts of creativity that are highly individualistic and those that are social, thus benefiting from collaboration.
  • It took a cross-disciplinary approach, drawing examples and anecdotes from many different fields, from writing to design to marketing to invention.
  • The author is good at clear explanation of technical subjects, a wonderful virtue for a writer. It takes special talent to turn hard facts into easy reading, creating a sentence such as, “It turns out that the brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, each of which is activated in a different context.” I remember no sentence in this book I had to read twice – except for pleasure.

It helps no one to deposit “Imagine” in some kind of literary memory hole. Correct its mistakes. Add an apology. Make it all transparent.  Make it available to another 200,000. Jonah Lehrer can do what he wants with the money. It makes no difference to me that an author is rewarded for bad behavior. I’m too busy learning.

Correction: Oliver Sacks’ name was originally misspelled in this story. Read more


Wall Street Journal removes two Jonah Lehrer essays, corrects two others

Jonah Lehrer “inappropriately reused passages from articles he wrote for the Boston Globe in two essays that he later wrote for the Journal’s Review section,” The Wall Street Journal reported in a correction Thursday.

Both “Head Case: Brain Scan Overload” (published Nov. 12, 2011) and “Mom Was Right: Go Outside” (published May 26, 2012) have now been replaced by editor’s notes.

Dow Jones Corporate Communications Manager Sara Blask says by email, “We have examined all of Mr. Lehrer’s pieces.” As a result, Blask says, the paper has corrected two stories as well: “Kant on a Kindle?” (October 1, 2010) and “How To Be Creative” (March, 12, 2012) Read more

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jonahlehrer investigator on latest Jonah Lehrer plagiarism: ‘I think the safety net has eroded’

Longtime science journalist Charles Seife was vaguely familiar with Jonah Lehrer’s work before asked him two weeks ago to investigate a sample of blog posts for plagiarism, fabrication and other shortcuts.

“I didn’t have any pre-existing thoughts that this was a bad journalist,” Seife said by phone Friday night. “You go in really trying to prove innocence rather than guilt.”

But Seife found problems in 17 of the 18 blog posts he reviewed. In three of those posts, Lehrer plagiarized from other writers, in five he used verbatim portions of press releases, and in 14 posts he recycled his own writing from previously published pieces. It was this recycling, first reported by Jim Romenesko on June 19, that started the cascade of investigations and revelations about Lehrer’s books and his work for The New Yorker and Wired.

Seife’s investigation was not published on, though. Instead, his findings were published on Slate at virtually the same time that Editor-in-Chief Evan Hansen published a statement acknowledging the problems with Lehrer’s work and the end of Wired’s relationship with the writer.

Why Slate?

Seife said he does not know why Wired decided against running a report on the investigation they commissioned.

“I think that the industry doesn’t really have a standard for dealing with incidents like this,” he said. “It’s always handled on a case by case basis, and it depends on how beloved the person is and how serious the sins are and what the editor happens to think at the time. … There’s a reflex sometimes to cover up. I’m not accusing of this, of course. Sometimes there’s an incredible desire to muck out the stables and sometimes there’s a desire to minimize the damage. And these are contradictions sometimes.”

Whatever Wired’s reasoning, the NYU journalism professor felt strongly that the information he uncovered should be shared.

“The work that I did for is pretty much public domain. It didn’t depend on the internal investigation, and so I felt I should publish it,” he said.

He chose Slate because he “wanted a site that could react quickly … and I have an existing relationship with Slate. I had written something for them not so long ago, and in fact I know the new editor there who’s a science journalist, who I knew when she worked at Science Magazine.”

Seife, who was a writer for Science Magazine, pitched the piece to Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate, and “on the order of a few hours” it was being edited and published.

Lehrer’s problems

Before the scandal that led to Seife’s investigation, he was “dimly aware” of Lehrer’s “reputation next to [Malcolm] Gladwell, with the good and the bad that entails. I think there’s a little bit of glibness that comes with packaging big ideas and distilling them into very, very consumable chunks. But there’s some value to it too,” he said.

“When I started reading his work more seriously in the wake of the scandal, from a science journalist point of view, I noticed that he was getting things wrong in a way that was disturbing,” Seife said. “What I particularly noticed was a credulousness when it came to studies — that every new study that supported one of his theses was great, even when there were clear methodological problems. And he cherry-picked.”

Then Seife read Michael Moynihan’s account of how Lehrer tried to cover up fabrication of Bob Dylan quotes in his book “Imagine.” “It really did remind me of the Stephen Glass affair,” Seife said by phone, echoing a tweet he sent at the time. “So I went in suspecting that there might be something.”

Still, Seife approached the process scientifically:

The first thing you do is you look for suspicious things, and you play devil’s advocate and find everything you can that looks like it could be … and then you narrow it down to solid-looking examples. And then you turn around and you try to disprove those. And you spend a lot of time trying to disprove it so that you’re left with no other conclusion. … In fact, I did clear him on a couple things I thought were fabricated quotations.

Overall, though, Seife said, “I did see a pattern, unfortunately.”

“Generally speaking, I think there was a food chain, and I think that his first-run articles for major outlets were where he was most careful. And I think that in his blog posts and in his books, there was a little bit more sloppiness. But even so I wouldn’t be surprised if you take a large enough sample of first run magazine articles, there’d be issues like this,” he said.

“I looked at 18 out of 250-some odd. I think there’s got to be a lot more examples there.”

During our conversation, Seife several times expressed empathy for Lehrer.

You go on an emotional roller coaster when you do something like this. When you see examples, you think, ‘Aha, this guy is no good,’ but at the same time you speak to the person and you try to get into their head and you feel a little empathy. So it goes up and down.

It’s not easy to damage someone’s career, whether a fellow journalist or doing investigative reporting, there’s always some level of empathy and some level of guilt, even if you know for sure the person has done wrong.

While Seife made no excuses for Lehrer, he also expressed concern about a journalism industry that missed the signs for so long and whose evolving culture may be enabling future Lehrers.

Industry issues

“The recycling went way back to 2007-2008, something like that, so when you think about how many people have seen the work and the fact that nobody said something. … It means there wasn’t enough attention paid on some level,” said Seife. “The media as a whole is cutting it kind of close when it comes to plagiarism.”

“I think the safety net has eroded,” he said. “Fact-checkers are disappearing, the editorial staff is getting threadbare. The mantra of do more with less is taking its toll.”

In his statement, Wired editor Hansen noted that Lehrer’s blog posts for Frontal Cortex were not edited or fact checked.

Seife worried that this sort of instant publishing “is a double-edged sword.” Editors might have slowed you down as a writer and robbed you of some freedom, but “at the same time they protected you,” he said.

“They made sure they challenged you. They forced you to think harder about your work, and if you screwed up, they kicked your ass. Lehrer, I think it’s really sad because I do think he’s a very clear writer, he’s able to distill ideas very well.

“And I think that if he had a bit more oversight early on in his career, if he had a good editor or two to kick his butt, I think he might have become a star that would never have fallen.” Read more


Wired severs ties with Jonah Lehrer after investigator finds 22 more examples of plagiarism, recycling

Slate | Wired asked NYU journalism professor Charles Seife to investigate Jonah Lehrer’s work for the website after it was revealed that the writer had recycled some of his own material for New Yorker posts and had fabricated quotes in one of his books. For reasons that are unclear, did not publish the results of Seife’s investigation, but Slate did.

Seife reviewed 18 posts and found 14 instances in which Lehrer recycled his own work, five posts that included material directly from press releases, three posts that plagiarized from other writers, four posts with problematic quotations and four that had problematic facts. Here’s a table summarizing his findings: Read more


Timeline of Jonah Lehrer plagiarism, fabrication revelations

June 19: Jim Romenesko reported that Jonah Lehrer recycled material for a New Yorker story
June 19: Joe Coscarelli published additional examples of Lehrer recycling material in New Yorker blog posts
June 19: Jacob Silverman found examples of Lehrer recycling in stories for The New York Times
June 20: Edward Champion published a comprehensive catalog of Lehrer’s recycling
June 20: Lehrer apologized for recycling his own material
June 21: New Yorker editor David Remnick said, “…if he were making things up or appropriating other people’s work that’s one level of crime.”
July 30: Michael Moynihan revealed fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in Lehrer’s “Imagine”
July 30: Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker Read more


Another source claims Lehrer misconduct: ‘I know I didn’t say’ half of that | Michael Moynihan | Slate
Milton Glaser, the artist best known for inventing the “I ♥ NY” logo, tells interviewer Ryan Kohls he never said half of what Jonah Lehrer attributed to him in his book “Imagine.” He also calls Lehrer’s behavior “self-sabotage.”

Well, it was so odd the whole thing. First off, I felt so sad for the poor guy. Here he was, his future guaranteed, top of the world working for the New Yorker, writing a book that had already sold 200,000 copies, and he shot himself. How could he have done that knowing it was inevitable he would be discovered? What kind of madness? Why would anybody do that? The self-sabotage to that degree was incomprehensible. I looked back at what I had said and half of it I know I didn’t say. … If you had modest intelligence, why would you set yourself up for the disaster of your life that would ruin your life forever? He will never recover from this.

Michael Moynihan, the journalist who first uncovered Lehrer’s fabrications in “Imagine,” corroborates on Twitter: “A few weeks back, I briefly corresponded with the great Milton Glaser regarding his appearance in Lehrer’s Imagine. … There was a quote that was supposedly from [Lehrer's] interview w/him that appeared lifted from another source. Glaser told me that while … the info was generally correct, he ‘believe[d] parts of it were picked up from other articles and parts were not in my voice.’ ”

Moynihan provided the two quotes by email: Read more


Wired clarifies: Lehrer has no current assignments

Wired Managing Editor Jacob Young writes that Jonah Lehrer “has no current assignments” at the magazine. Wednesday, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith and Reyhan Harmanci reported Wired spokesperson Jon Hammond had said Lehrer “was and remains on a features contract with Wired” and “Lehrer’s continuing contract with Wired, a Conde Nast sibling of the New Yorker, meant that ‘a couple of pieces that were already in the works’ and that the magazine anticipates future contributions from him.”

Later, Young clarified:

We want to ensure that there is no confusion regarding reports today about writer Jonah Lehrer and WIRED. Jonah has not been “hired” by WIRED; he’s been a contributing editor at the magazine and the website for years. When allegations surfaced about his work elsewhere, we immediately began a thorough review of his feature stories and columns in the magazine. So far we have found nothing unusual. Jonah also wrote tens of thousands of words for, and the process of vetting that work continues. He has no current assignments. After gathering the facts–from our inquiry and elsewhere–we’ll make a decision about whether Jonah’s byline will appear again at WIRED.

BuzzFeed has updated its story.

The news Wired was sticking with Lehrer did not, on the whole, generate positive publicity. Read more


Pity Wired’s fact-checkers if Jonah Lehrer writes again for the magazine

Update: BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith broke the news Wednesday that Wired is keeping confessed fabricator, problematic science writer, and self-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer on contract.

Wired spokesman Jonathan Hammond told the site that Lehrer had “a couple of pieces that were already in the works” and was expected to contribute in the future.

Based on that information, I examined what this meant for the magazine’s fact-checking department, as did The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. The original version of this post remains below, but parts of it have been eclipsed by a new statement, issued by Wired Managing Editor Jacob Young, that contradicts what Hammond said:

[Lehrer] has no current assignments. After gathering the facts–from our inquiry and elsewhere–we’ll make a decision about whether Jonah’s byline will appear again at WIRED.

That’s a different scenario. It’s a much better course of action to complete the review of Lehrer’s stories before letting him work on new pieces. I’m glad that’s the case, and it renders my first two points below moot.

My third point was that someone from Wired’s masthead should have explained the magazine’s decision to keep Lehrer on contract. On Wednesday, Hammond was unable to say whether Lehrer’s new work would receive special attention from editors and fact-checkers.

I wrote, “If Wired is going to stand by Lehrer, then someone from the masthead should do so publicly. It sends a stronger message and provides better information.”

The new statement from Young demonstrates the value of having editorial people talk publicly about editorial decisions.

That said, I apologize that my original post included incorrect information about Wired’s plans. Regardless of the source of that information, I used it as a jumping-off point and that’s my error.

The original version of this post follows:

BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith broke the news that Wired is keeping confessed fabricator, problematic science writer, and self-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer on contract. He had a few pieces “in the works” and is also expected to contribute new material for the magazine in the future.

The decision was seemingly made, in part, because, as a Wired spokesman said, “To date we have not come across anything that seems too troubling” during an investigation into Lehrer’s previous print work. Spokesman Jon Hammond noted the magazine is “continuing our process of vetting” Lehrer’s online material.

Three things to note about this decision.

1. Wired has chosen to keep Lehrer on contract and let him continue to work on material even though they haven’t yet completed a review of his work for the website. Is it really so urgent to have Lehrer on assignment that the magazine can’t wait until it’s given all of his work, online and print, a clean bill of health?

More importantly, does this decision help Lehrer come to terms with why he did what he did, and understand what was/is going on? I worry that carrying on as usual gives Lehrer a reason to not dig into the true cause(s) of his transgressions.

For the record, I have no idea what that might be. But a pattern of deception like his is about more than sloppy work.

2. I feel really bad for the Wired fact-checking team right now. Erik Wemple asked Hammond if Lehrer’s work would receive special attention in terms of quality control, and this is what the spokesman said:

I can’t speak to that only because that’s a question our editors will have to assess when the time is right. I am confident that they will ensure, as they always have, that anything published by Wired is throoughly [sic] fact-checked and accurate.

Wired has, by all accounts, a top notch fact-checking department. It’s one of the few still operating inside magazines. And now, thanks to a decision by higher-ups, these checkers will carry the weight of the decision to keep Lehrer on contract.

Not only do they have to do their usual, tough job of ensuring the magazine publishes material that is factually accurate and legally defensible, they also have to justify the decision to keep working with Lehrer.

They need to ensure everything in his pieces for Wired is watertight. There is no room for error, and ultimately it’s the checkers who are responsible for this. Lehrer and his editor(s) want this to work out as well, of course. But the checkers need to be foolproof to help everyone look good.

That’s added pressure they could do without.

3. Hammond says he doesn’t know if the magazine has any special plans for handling Lehrer’s work. I suppose you can’t expect a spokesman to know this information offhand.

So perhaps, and I’m just spitballing here, an editor from Wired could offer an explanation of the decision to keep Lehrer on contract, and how they plan to ensure the quality of his work?

I have nothing against spokespeople, and there are many questions and issues for which they are well suited to offer comment and response. But this is a significant and controversial editorial decision. If Wired is going to stand by Lehrer, then someone from the masthead should do so publicly. It sends a stronger message and provides better information.

Related: Why journalism should rehabilitate, not excommunicate, fabulists and plagiarists | How to handle plagiarism and fabrication allegations Read more


Wired says it’ll keep publishing Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer will keep his contract at Wired, Reyhan Harmanci and Ben Smith report.

“Jonah was and remains on a features contract with Wired,” spokesman Jon Hammond told BuzzFeed. “We chose to maintain our contract.”

The magazine is still looking at Lehrer’s previous work, Hammond tells Harmanci and Smith, but has not “come across anything that seems too troubling.”

Related: Why journalism should rehabilitate, not excommunicate, fabulists and plagiarists | How to handle plagiarism and fabrication allegations Read more


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