Jonah Lehrer Resigns From New Yorker Amid Scandal

It’s been a rough couple of months for the science Wunderkind. Jonah Lehrer resigned today from his post at the New Yorker after acknowledging that he fabricated quotes in his most recent book, Imagine. His publisher is pulling the e-book that contains the misquotations and is halting production of physical copies.

Lehrer admitted that quotes that he had attributed to Bob Dylan “either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes.”

Jonah Lehrer, the educator who admitted he wasn’t too honest with his attributions.

This news comes on the heels of a smaller scandal, in which Lehrer admitted to reusing or “self-plagiarizing” his own work in numerous published pieces without telling his editors. At the time, Lehrer had just left his post at Wired, where he was a contributing editor, to become a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Lehrer issued an apology this morning:

I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.

Felix Salmon has already written a nice little ditty about how Lehrer should have been using the blog for different purposes, because the blogging format is informal and relies on “glossing.” Some in the media have even suggested that Lehrer’s plagiarisms reveal misogynistic patterns of arrogance. (I’m not overly fond of this explanation for why he plagiarized, but it would be interesting to find out which sex plagiarizes more. I wouldn’t be surprised if men in major publications plagiarized more than their female counterparts.)

What’s sad about Lehrer is the same thing that’s sad about Winona Ryder: neither had a glaring need that would have made deceit or theft necessary. Ryder was rich and didn’t need to steal clothes. Lehrer is gifted and didn’t need to bend the facts to make a compelling story.

I will, however, admit to feeling some Schadenfreude about Lehrer. To me, Lehrer always seemed glib, slick, and conceited. By itself, nothing really to complain about, since a lot of writers are like that. Yet Lehrer started off as a scientist, and I think he still identifies as one. Lehrer’s mistake shows a very unscientific prerogative: bend the facts to fit your hypothesis. I guess he wasn’t much of a scientist after all. I’m glad to finally have the mask ripped off.

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A related question: will the reputation of Radiolab, where Lehrer was a frequent contributor, be tainted by association? Earlier this year, Mike Daisey created a stir when he lied to This American Life about a trip he took to China for a story about working conditions in factories that assemble Apple products. This American Life redacted a story which featured Daisey’s fictitious monologue, an embarrassing first for the journalism show. Radiolab was quick to defend Lehrer after the initial accusations of self-plagiarism surfaced in June. Jad Abumrad, the show’s creator, called Lehrer “one of the most stunningly creative voices [he's] ever encountered.” Ouch.

*     *     *

Maclean teaching at the University of Chicago. Maclean was 74 before publishing his first novel.

Two tangents: 1) “Lehrer” in German literally means “teacher.” 2) Lehrer reportedly failed to attribute to Norman Maclean a description of a 1949 firefight in Montana that Lehrer used but that Maclean wrote. If you haven’t read A River Runs Through It or Young Men and Fire, both written by Maclean, do yourself a favor and read them.

34 responses to “Jonah Lehrer Resigns From New Yorker Amid Scandal

  1. Hmm. What does it mean to ‘like’ this post? Well, I’m very sad to hear this story unfold. I am a fan of Mr. Lehrer from both NPR and The New Yorker. I’m not sure how this happened, but I hope that he can find a way to redeem himself. I certainly don’t excuse the actions he is charged with taking, but I also would hate for the science world to lose such a clear voice.
    Good Luck Jonah.

    • Hi there. While I respect Mr. Lehrer and think the situation is regrettable, I do believe his actions revealed something significant about his character. He had a mindset, and that mindset was deeply unscientific. I don’t know whether a mindset like that changes very easily. I certainly hope he can right the ship, become somewhat less preoccupied with his own brand, and commit himself to a serious study of science, but I won’t be surprised if doubts surround him for a while yet. Thanks for your comment and the reblog!

  2. Reblogged this on AppCampus and commented:
    Hmm. What does it mean to ‘like’ this post? Well, I’m very sad to hear this story unfold. I am a fan of Mr. Lehrer from both NPR and The New Yorker. I’m not sure how this happened, but I hope that he can find a way to redeem himself. I certainly don’t excuse the actions he is charged with taking, but I also would hate for the science world to lose such a clear voice.
    Good Luck Jonah.

    -Ps, I should probably disclose that I wrote the above comment on another blog first (see dispatches from pangea).

    • That or he got lazy. He’s a smart guy. Did he even think about whether he’d get get caught? If he did, I find it hard to believe that he seriously weighed the consequences.

  3. As a journalist by profession and education, this saddens me. But I’m particularly interested by this quote: “Felix Salmon has already written a nice little ditty about how Lehrer shouldn’t have been blogging in the first place, because the format didn’t suit his insights.” How does the format of blogging suit or not suit an insight? Intriguing…

    I’m off to read the “nice little ditty” right now.

    • I got Salmon confused with Levin. Josh Levin, who is referenced in Felix Salmon’s blog post, said that Lehrer was essentially an “ideas man.” These people, according to Levin, rely on big insights in their careers. Bloggers, on the other hand, need to produce a steady, smaller stream of insights. So while Levin believes that Lehrer should have simply stuck with his post as a staff writer instead of trying to do the blog, Salmon believes that Lehrer could have made the blog work if he changed the way he blogged. Thanks for your comment!

  4. No one would give a second thought about this guy if he wasn’t a photogenic “wunderkind” from NYC. The intelligentsia of that city worship themselves. This kind of event comes as no surprise.

    • I think the media in general is obsessed with itself, but you’re right–NYC is a different animal. I saw a blogger yesterday say that there were “two literary cultures in America, academic and New York.” I don’t believe he was being cheeky.

      Lehrer had his tentacles spread pretty far: he was a frequent contributer to numerous publications, a frequent guest on Radiolab, a popular speaker-for-hire. I think the scale of what he admitted to, as well as his general popularity, make his gaffe so sensational.

  5. I admit to some schadenfraude myself. My opinion of Lehrer is similar to yours. But I must ask, why do you feel that men are more likely to plagiarize than women? In fact, I always hear of women in academia being under undue pressure because they’re women. If that’s true, women might be more motivated to cheat.
    As far as scientists finding facts to fit their hypotheses, it happens a lot. Most of the time, the scientist himself catches his bias. Occasionally they miss a few. The peer-review process should catch these instances of cherry picking.
    Nicely written. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    • It’s very possible women are under more pressure to perform in academia and in publishing simply because they’re women. But, generally, I think women are much more risk-averse than men. Women contribute more than men to workplace retirement programs. Women are 3 times less likely to be arrested for reckless driving and DUIs. Women just take fewer risks than men.

      I think the average male plagiarist is cocky and thinks he can get away with it. If he doesn’t think about getting caught at all, perhaps it’s because he isn’t programmed to recognize the risk in the first place. I think women are probably better at weighing relative risks and rewards. Another way of putting it is this: the potential male plagiarist focuses on the reward, the potential female plagiarist focuses on the risk.

      Agree with you on the necessity of peer-review, and on the scientists catching their own mistakes. Maybe Mr. Lehrer’s scientific interests will change in the coming years? I wonder if he felt pressure to be the next Malcolm Gladwell. Thanks for your comment, bharat!

  6. What I find the most interesting about these bad decisions people decide to make, it always amazes me that they don’t take history into consideration. This is not the first time that a writer has plagiarized or fabricated (and I’m sure it won’t be the last).
    What they fail to consider is that someone will always find out at some point in time, and that will always be more damaging than having to put the actual work in.

    • You’ve got a great point. People often don’t look ahead and wonder if history will judge them. Why is that?

      I think it’s because we value what happens in the present more than we do what might happen in the future. We know we should save up for retirement, but that new Dodge Charger is so cool, and plus, Michael C. Hall is such a badass in the commercials. We know we should generally be more healthy, but vegetables are only tasty when you juice ‘em, and I’ll kick the cigarette habit when I’m 30. It’s hard to convince our lizard brains that the future has anything more than theoretical value.

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. Plagiarism is for the weak..those afraid to really dig deep..It’s for the lazy…those afraid to test new thoughts and give them life..
    This is a sad story indeed..

  8. Thanks for pointing out the German translation, I was yet to comment on it but you included it in your blog! Well done!
    I read his book on stress and emotions and found it quite fascinating but now I wonder how much was really him and how much was someone else…

  9. Self-destruction is self-destruction, whether you are a janitor-alcoholic or a New Yorker writer-plagiarizer. It is sad that such a bright, talented, successful individual had to shoot themselves in the foot, but I suspect someone like this would find a way to do it one way or another.

  10. The pace was too fast. The rewards too sultry. And He didn’t think that those reading had knowledge of the quotes.”Satis=FACT-Shun” … Literary P-E.

  11. I can’t believe he could be so shrewd…
    Its too bad that he had to resort to such levels….
    Anyways thanks for the info! :)

    Congrats on freshly pressed!
    Check mine too?
    Cheers! :)

  12. Poor guy. He must be gutted that his fibs got spotted.
    He’s young & talented though, so I hope he learns from his mistakes and rises to the top again.

  13. So fed up with these spoiled brats tossing their toys. As a career journo and author of two accurate books full of — you know — facts, Lehrer’s “downfall”, i.e. self-immolation, is just a sick joke.

    Women don’t make shit up or take his kind of career trajectory for granted; we know how hard it is to even be considered credible, let alone have a best-seller, let alone be given a staff job at the New Yorker. He couldn’t handle the pressure?

    Hand me my violin.

    http://broadsideblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/todays-journalism-plagiarism-scandal-and-other-forms-of-editorial-mayhem/

    • Nice article. I’m not so much angry at his entitlement as I am shocked he did something so silly. As you point out, he had lots of things going for him, and lots of people rooting for him.

  14. I’m not going to throw stones, because I often just want to make something up to end the g*d damn thing ! How many times must I say something differently, to make the point ? What’s instant
    gratification focused on yourself called ? On my little, recreational blog, I state ~ Some of what you read here, on this blog, may be fiction, not always a personal reflection. (yes, CYA for future lapses.) I understand that’s he a professional, but the task of writing something new, intelligent, marketable, and frequently must have been monumental. He caved and I hope he finds his way out.

  15. Maybe it’s off the point, but I just love that you mentioned that Norman Maclean was 74 before publishing his first novel. So encouraging! ^^

    • I’m glad you caught that! I’ve loved Maclean for some time now, and I’ve always been emboldened by (and proud of–oddly enough–like a parent) that circumstance. What a great storyteller, and so under-appreciated. Thanks for your comment!

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