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The Real Trouble with Jonah Lehrer

He's apologized for intellectual dishonesty. But not for intellectual laziness.

Getty Images/Thos Robinson

On Tuesday, Jonah Lehrer, the bestselling author and former New Yorker writer, gave a remarkable speech to the Knight Foundation. Titled “My Apology,” Lehrer’s talk was largely a mea culpa for the journalistic sins he committed and then lied about, which were uncovered last summer by Michael Moynihan in Tablet Magazine. “I am the author of a book on creativity that contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes,” Lehrer explained. “I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking, without credit or citation, an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I also plagiarized from myself.” He went on to say that he was “profoundly sorry.”

It’s safe to say that observers were somewhat less than blown away by the speech. “Jonah Lehrer boring people into forgiving him for his plagiarism,” read one representative tweet. Much of the criticism focused on the extraordinary decision of the Knight Foundation (whose mission is to “support transformational ideas that promote quality journalism”) to pay Lehrer $20,000.

Notwithstanding the tut-tutting about his paycheck, the overarching narrative—the erstwhile star falling to earth, the media delighting in his crash, the lip-biting apology—could have been pre-written by any Oprah viewer or Lance Armstrong fan. More important was what this going-through-the-motions routine elided: Lehrer's entire method was dishonest and lazy.

In fact, the entire scandal reveals something rotten about the gotcha culture of the modern media, which has a much easier time focusing on something quantifiable like plagiarism than grappling with the question of whether something is any damn good. Rather than wondering whether or not Lehrer’s apology was suitably abject, commentators should have pondered the disturbing trends that made Lehrer such a phenomenon before his downfall. Or, to put it another way, there is something odd about a culture that becomes appropriately moralistic about lying but sees no problem with selling a book by saying, “the color blue can help you double your creative output.”

I reviewed Lehrer’s book, Imagine, for The New Republic in June, before Moynihan discovered the plagiarism. If I had known of Lehrer’s deceptions before writing my piece, I would have tried to argue that the book would have been just as absurd and nonsensical even if every word of it had been true. (The Dylan chapter is only one small part of the book.) The fact that such a shoddy piece of work could be written by such an ostensibly serious writer is somehow more disturbing than the knowledge that an overconfident journalist invented several quotes.

As for Lehrer’s speech itself, critics have missed the inherent irony: The speech’s narrative replicates everything annoying about a Jonah Lehrer piece.

After beginning with his apology, Lehrer goes on to tell the story of the FBI’s forensics lab, which apparently botched its investigation of the 2004 Madrid bombings. An innocent man was arrested after the FBI claimed to have found a finger-print match that turned out to be erroneous. Meanwhile, thanks to this error, an innocent man (who, shockingly, had converted to Islam, thus garnering law enforcement’s attention) spent several weeks in prison.  Eventually, he was freed, and the Justice Department investigated the error; its report on the injustice calls for a different standard operating procedure that, for example, takes more account of opposing points of view.

This is just a thumbnail sketch, and Lehrer tells the story as he would in one of his articles or book chapters. But what’s the upshot? Well, apparently, the great lesson of all this is that Lehrer’s story is similar to the FBI’s. He is worth quoting at a little length here:

What I clearly need is a new list of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures. If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted. It doesn’t matter if it’s a book or an article or the text for a speech like this one. Every conversation with a subject will be tape recorded and transcribed. If the subject would like a copy of their transcript, I will provide it. There is, of course, nothing innovative about these procedures. The vast majority of journalists don’t need to be shamed into following them. But I did, which is why I also need to say them out loud.

So, the story is as follows: the FBI screwed up (for reasons that are still cloudy), Lehrer screwed up (for psychological reasons about which it is futile to speculate), the FBI changed its procedures and instituted new guidelines, and now Lehrer is going to do the same. A happy ending! Put aside for a moment the somewhat unflattering self-portrait of a man who cannot be trusted, but instead must be hemmed in by rules. What is the point of this FBI anecdote? Did the FBI technicians have similar psychological flaws as Lehrer? Were they motivated by the same things? Does it matter that several FBI workers were involved in the Madrid screw-up and Lehrer was a lone actor? (It’s hard to talk about institutional problems when Lehrer was the only perpetrator.) Does this change how one responds to the errors in each case? What is the equivalent of the “scientific culture” of the FBI labs that needs to be reformed in Lehrer’s case?

Now, I don’t really know the answers to these questions. I had never before heard of the FBI screw-up, and I have given the entire comparison about five minutes of thought. But those five minutes are somehow more than are traditionally allowed in the genre Lehrer has made his name in, and which, if this speech is anything to go by, he is trying to work his way back into. That Lehrer is still not to be trusted goes without saying, and it is rich (pardon the pun) that he waited to give his full apology until money was dangled in front of him.

But the bigger joke is that Lehrer is one of many practitioners of a field—self help via pop science—whose shoddiness gets too much of a pass, thanks largely to the money it earns. Intellectual laziness is a different crime than intellectual dishonesty, but it still needs to be reckoned with.

Follow @IChotiner.

Disclosure: New Republic publisher and editor-in-chief Chris Hughes is a member of the Knight Foundation's board of trustees.