Under the microscope, Lehrer’s work shows bigger problems than self-plagiarism

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New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer's in hot water for repeating himself repeatedly, or, if you prefer, self-plagiarizing repeatedly. The issue, Josh Levin writes in Slate, isn't so much the repetition: It's that it shows he's out of ideas. And that's important because Lehrer "has ceased to be a writer," Levin writes. "With the success of his recent books 'How We Decide' and 'Imagine: How Creativity Works,' Lehrer has moved into the idea business."

By recycling ideas and passages from earlier works, Levin writes, Lehrer's lifted a veil on an uncomfortable fact of life for popular intellectuals such as himself and Malcolm Gladwell:

Most of us journalists have one great idea every few months, maybe two if we drink industrial levels of caffeine. For professional thinkers like Gladwell and Lehrer, the key to maintaining a remunerative career is to milk your best ideas until there’s no liquid left and pray you’ve bought yourself enough time to conjure up new ones.

Lehrer, he writes, has "unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired."

Laura Hazard Owen hammers home the Problem of the Empty Larder:

It is tough to come up with new, fresh material that advances a counterintuitive thesis. It’s even tougher to repeatedly come up with those new “wow, I never looked at it that way” ideas. And when you do come up with those ideas, it’s probably more tempting to recycle them.

That's not such a big deal in public speaking -- another arena in which Lehrer has excelled and repeated himself -- she writes, "but it’s problematic for a journalist."

And Lehrer may have bigger problems now that his entire oeuvre is under scrutiny. Edward Champion, for instance, has compiled a dossier showing just how much recycled material made its way into "Imagine." An editor's note at the foot of his excellent New Yorker piece on brainstorming says some Noam Chomsky quotes within it "were not made directly to Jonah Lehrer" and that "Chomsky and his colleague were interviewed by Peter Dizikes for his article in the November/December issue of Technology Review." Gulp.

The Daily Beast's Jacob Silverman spoke with NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson Tuesday night.

“We’ve been on the phone back and forth throughout the day,” Thompson said. “He understands he made a serious mistake. He understands the rules. It’s definitely not going to happen again.”

In a review of "Imagine" published earlier this month, Isaac Chotiner ripped Lehrer for a "worshipful" attitude toward science, for using "slippery language" to make often contradictory points and for getting things wrong: "almost everything" in a chapter about Bob Dylan, Chotiner writes, "is inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic."

If the crowd-sourced forensic examination of his work keeps up -- surely there's someone with the time to listen to 16 episodes of Radiolab -- I'd imagine Lehrer will soon pine for the day people zinged him for reusing material he published elsewhere. At least that points to merely a deficit in work ethic, or his ability to come up with ideas. "A pattern of self-plagiarism can only mean A) a wanton disregard for the rules, or B) outright stupidity," Hamilton Nolan writes in Gawker. "I don't think Jonah Lehrer is stupid."

Related: Book review: "I never was quite sure about the line that separated his reporting from other people’s work." (Columbia) || In a live chat, Jack Shafer, Kelly McBride and Craig Silverman explored what's wrong with Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing himself.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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