February 13, 2013

Jonah Lehrer played to his strengths Tuesday when he lectured and apologized at a Knight Foundation lunch. But in his extended examination of conscience, he lost sight of his own flaws and missed his opportunity to really explain and remedy what happened in his spectacular downfall.

Lehrer concluded that he needs rules, and he will in the future impose rigid rules of fact-checking on himself to avoid the mistakes he made. “Standard operating procedures will one day restore the trust I have lost,” he said.

I don’t think the rules are enough. Lehrer needs a community. He needs a group of peers, of equals, to challenge his ego and inspire his creativity.

His speech Tuesday was at times like reading a good Lehrer article. He explained the pathology of scientific weakness and human self-deception. He quoted Charles Darwin and told a story about tragic and avoidable mistakes made by FBI forensics experts.

But the mistakes he described were mistakes of “confirmation bias,” the kind of mistakes you make when you think you know what the answer is and as a result, you dismiss contradictory evidence. And sure, journalists have that problem.

But Lehrer’s problems were creativity failures. In his quest to become the great science writer he set out to be, he fabricated stuff. He copied work from himself and others and passed it off as genuinely new and original.

The disconnect between what he did and how he proposes to redeem himself was difficult to spot, because at the beginning of his speech, Lehrer gave an accurate litany of his transgressions:

I’m the author of a book on creativity that contains several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes. I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking without credit or citation an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I’ve plagiarized from myself. I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to covered up the Dylan fabrications.

Yet, as the speech went on, Lehrer told stories of scientific failures that were not the result of outright deceptions; they were failures of self-delusion. The failures that Lehrer suggests were parallel to his own, like the FBI agents who mistakenly who locked up an innocent man as a result of bad fingerprint analysis, were not the same.

Lehrer said his own examination of his flaws started with an attempt to describe and name what “part” was broken. His conclusion:

My arrogance, my desire for attention, my willingness to take shortcuts (provided I don’t think anyone else will notice), my carelessness matched with the ability to explain my carelessness away, my tendency to believe my own excuses.

These are all flaws that many journalists struggle with. This list would work if he had repeatedly misinterpreted data or accidentally attributed a real quote to the wrong person. But Lehrer didn’t do that. He wrote sentences down, put quote marks around them and attributed them to Bob Dylan. An entire paragraph written by another person made its way into his work. Other sentences and paragraphs were recycled and posited as originals.

While a rigid fact-checking system, a “standard operating procedure,” as he called it, might catch such deceptions in the future before they make it into publication, it won’t address the underlying problem of dishonesty.

Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen’s first question to Lehrer laid bare the flaws in Lehrer’s thinking. Ibargüen asked Lehrer about the role arrogance played in his downfall, and he pushed Lehrer to draw a parallel to the arrogance granting organizations in the audience might succumb to when funding new projects.

Lehrer replied that his problems stemmed from a disinterest in grappling with his mistakes. He returned to Darwin’s method of confronting confirmation bias. Lehrer’s inability to completely label his own failure is a liability.

During his prepared remarks, he told a story about some research he was reporting on that suggests that everybody cheats, given the opportunity. Looking back, he told the audience that he was blind to his own flaws, using the detachment of the third person to condemn others as weak because, “It’s all too easy to shade the truth … to engage in the dirty business of rationalization.”

That revelation, he said, led him to his remedy.

“If I’m going to regain some semblance of self-respect, then I need the help of others,” he said. “I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong if only so that I can show myself that I am willing to listen. That is the test that matters, not the absence of error, but a willingness to deal with it.”

With this statement, Lehrer comes so close. But rather than tapping into the necessity of human relationships in the creative process, he assigns them the role of policing his work.

Communities provide a constant loop of feedback, not just on the product heading for publication, but on the method for coming up with ideas, on the ideas themselves and on the behavior that we exhibit as we execute the research and writing.

That’s why many solo writers seek out communities of other writers, to test their drafts. We’ve all got flaws that we are constantly in the process of addressing. Those flaws turn into fatal flaws when no one is challenging you on them, or you accumulate so much power you can easily dismiss your critics, especially the ones who know and love you.

Rules are great for setting a base level of expectations in journalism. Get things right, correct them when you get them wrong. Check your quotes. Allow your sources and other experts to give you feedback on the premise of your work. Those are rules that provide for a lowest common denominator of expectations.

But rules won’t help anyone address their most fatal flaws. For that, we need relationships with other human beings, editors, work friends, writing colleagues. Because writing is inherently isolating and can make us insecure, it’s easier to go solo, distancing ourselves from these relationships. And I suspect that’s the path that Lehrer found most comfortable.

Community — close friends, colleagues, cyber acquaintances — serve better as partners than as a police force.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
Kelly McBride

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