Jonah Lehrer and the facts

Recently Jonah Lehrer, a rising star science writer, resigned his post at the New Yorker. A journalist named Michael Moynihan identified fabricated quotes falsely attributed to Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s book Imagine. The book has been pulled from and other bookstores. If you want a detailed account of what happened and what the passages were, Poynter has an excellent summary.

Months ago I critiqued an excerpt of Lehrer’s book in my popular article In Defense of Brainstorming. My opinion was, and is, he made claims the studies he referred to did not support.

I’ve read most of the major coverage about Lehrer and here are my thoughts:

  • It’s a sad story. He’s a talented writer. He resigned and apologized for the fabrication. We should be grateful this was dealt with quickly and publicly. It frees readers and scholars to examine his other work carefully and identify other fabrications, if any, in his other writings.
  • There is no excuse for fabrication. Writing is hard. Doing research is hard. But one hopes journalists have some sense of the truth and respect for other people who they are writing about and resist the urge for shortcuts of any kind.
  • But all journalists manipulate truth. When a journalist interviews you for 20 minutes on a subject, and then uses merely one sentence you said, they are choosing how to represent the truth. They are likely choosing the truth you said that fits the story they are already building. Is it true you said what you said? Yes. But will it be true in the context of the article? Maybe, maybe not. Every quote you read from every expert in every article is chosen in roughly this fashion. A 1500 word piece can not encompass the entirety of anything which means every fact offered is only a partial rendering of that fact, quote, person or event. Journalists have to decide what angle to take, what slivers of facts to use, and how to fit the pieces together. We hope they keep everyone’s integrity intact, but that is often wishful thinking. (Also see the use and misuse of quoting people)
  • Mistakes are everywhere. We assume writers are magicians. Fact checking, in rare instances where it is done seriously, is not a perfect process. If a popular book written in 1975 unintentionally misquoted a famous person, it’s entirely possible the mis-quote will become more popular than the real one no matter what anyone does. Dozens of new books and articles will continue to propagate that misquote. And in 2012 an author might find the same misquote reused by three different sources, which is enough for most people to assume that quote is valid to reuse. Any writer has to put some faith in his sources in order to write, and there are too many facts to check or origins to verify in any article to achieve certainty. Writing and history are imperfect even when we are all at our best.
  • We all suffer from Confirmation Bias. Everyone tends to choose an opinion and then look for facts. Writers are not immune. My critique of Lehrer in In Defense of Brainstorming was not about ethics, it was about standards. I don’t think he gave fair coverage of the specific research he cited, which is problematic if that research is the basis for making big claims. I was disappointed he did this, but many writers do. And few readers are diligent enough to read the studies to check writers assumptions. I made a made a similar critique of Susan Cain’s NY Times piece in The Problem with the New Groupthink. It’s not unethical to have confirmation bias. Most writing has many biases, both obvious and hidden. However it should reduce your credibility as a writer and thinker, as good writers and thinkers should proactively disclose or work against their own biases.
  • I’m upset about lying more than the mistakes. Given that mistakes are common and hard to avoid, writers should be committed to finding mistakes in their own work and correcting them. It’s important the writer themselves facilitates that process. The most disturbing thing in Lehrer’s story so far is his lying over the span of weeks about his fabrication. That’s where, as a writer, Lehrer is out of rope. I wish more writers would invite review and lead the process. For the Myths of Innovation, I made a commitment to research accuracy and continue to invite readers to help improve future editions of the book by checking my facts.
  • Self-plagiarism is a stupid term. In unrelated incidents, Lehrer apparently reused portions from articles he had written for Wired magazine in articles submitted to The New Yorker. The term that has been coined for this, self-plagarism, is misleading. Plagarism is theft. The problem here is not theft, as the words he reused were his own. For a reader, there might not be a problem at all as they don’t care where the paragraph came from if it works well in the article. Publishers have a right to original material if they wish, so the primary issue is between the writer and the publisher, not the reader. As Gladwell has apparently stated about this: “By the way, if I run across the same absurd allegation anywhere else, I intend to reproduce my comment verbatim. Why? Because I thought about what I wanted to say, I’m comfortable with the way I said it, and I see no reason to tinker with my own language for the sake of tinkering with my own language.” (source)

Update: A study of Lehrer’s posts for Wired found numerous issues. They’ve terminated their relationship with him.

13 Responses to “Jonah Lehrer and the facts”

  1. dave

    Regarding self-plagiarism: Isn’t it true that words written for a publication like Wired are under the copyright of the publication, and are therefore its property?

    Legally, are those words still the writer’s to re-use without attribution?

    1. Scott Berkun

      It depends on the contract between the writer and the publisher. Typically the contract discusses rights but it’s up to both parties to agree on the specific restrictions or uses. For example, for articles I write for other places I request a clause that gives me independent rights: they can do as they wish with the work, but so can I. There are many different variations for how the rights are distributed, both rights for the writer and rights for the publisher.

  2. Lizabeth Barclay

    You might be interested in this:

    If I submit an article for publication (scholarly) I must sign that it is original work. Academic journals are extremely concerned about self-plagiarism. And, yes, it has to do with copyright too.

  3. Ryan Clifford

    I can’t believe that this is the first I’ve heard of this. I hate to sound overly-emotional, but it makes me incredibly sad. I hadn’t bought his book yet, but loved his talk at the 99% Conference.

    I’ll have to re-watch the talk, but in the meantime, knowing what you know, do you think his work should be ignored entirely? Or do you think his work is generally sound, with fabrications used to bolster real facts/studies/observations, rather than invent them all together?

    1. Scott Berkun

      Hi Ryan. As I mention in the article, all work has mistakes. Every reader should question what they read.

      I think his work will be read differently now, but there’s no reason not to read it. Hopefully all of his work will see more scrutiny now because of this and his work might end up being better analyzed and understood than most writers work ever is.

      1. Ryan Clifford

        I tend to agree, Scott. I’m inclined to stand by Lehrer, while he rehabs his career. The fact is, I liked what he was doing, and it was useful for me. Given the intense scrutiny he’ll be under now, I don’t see further mistakes going forward. I just hope the public will give him a chance. In my opinion, this miles apart from a Stephen Glass situation, but I worry that he’ll be lumped into the same conversation.

        With that said, I hadn’t thought of it before, but I see the commenters point about letting readers know that something is being reused. We take in so much information that it does show a lack of respect to not let readers know from the outset that they may have read the material already.

        1. Scott Berkun

          For journalists, recovery from something like this is tough. Few editors at magazines will be willing to take risks on his work, whether that’s right or not. Of course the web makes any writer free to do what they wish – it will be interesting to see what Lehrer’s next steps are.

          Also see: – it’s not the same of course as Blair was pathological in his exploits and Lehrer’s transgressions are comparatively very minor.

  4. a.

    as a reader, i definitely have a problem with lehrer’s “self-plagiarism” – whatever term we choose to use for it. many readers, myself included, follow particular topics and/or writers on those topics over the course of months or years. if a writer is reusing material, i’d like to know, because then i know, cognitively, that the material is repeating something i read previously, so i don’t need to make new brainspace for it; or, i can choose to save my time and read something else.

    a few months back, before any of his misdeeds were discovered, i perused his then-new new yorker blog, due to lots of links/references to it (as lehrer’s writing always got, despite his consistent factual and cognitive sloppiness). i remember finding the material vaguely repetitious, despite a lack of attribution, and decided to mostly ignore it. but it proved hard to do so, because so many people/places on the web refer to it. so i kept ending up back there, thinking, if folks keep linking to him, he must be saying something new/of consequence. so it didn’t surprise me too much when eventually the disclaimer was added at the top of the posts.

    even if wired didn’t have copright on the material, the proper thing for lehrer to do in his blog posts would have been to simply say, “as i wrote about before in ” – something other writers do ALL the time, is completely normal, and clears up any possible concerns. to repeat stuff, wherever it may be from, in paid content (NOT unpaid comments, as gladwell’s quote is referring to) without acknowledging it is a waste of readers’ time, and shows a lack of respect for one’s readers.

    and a comment about blogs: many people are saying that blogs are an evolving format. sure they are, but it’s been 10 years, and some conventions HAVE actually become standard. one of the assumptions i think many of us make about blogs/a pretty solid convention is that they are new ideas – so fresh that there’s not enough time to get them into a magazine article or book. which is why it makes sense to me, and many others, that ideas discussed in a blog would then later appear in a longer/more deliberate format. to do what lehrer did has no precedent, and carries the stain of dishonesty.

  5. Michael Diamond

    In high school a teacher wrote on the board one day:

    To Represent is to Select
    To Select is to Omit
    To Omit is to Misrepresent

    This has stuck with me for a long time, and I often find it relevant to discussions and debates I’m participating, especially when I’m the one telling a story or constructing an argument.

    1. Scott Berkun

      This is the dilemma anyone who writes or speaks or has an opinion has to content with. To simultaneously omit things, yet still be convinced their confidence has merit. It’s quite a tightrope.

  6. curtrice

    Scott — This is a good column, but I do disagree with your final point. Self-plagiarism is a useful term in my opinion, and I think your argument is incomplete. When we publish something, we sign over the copyright to that material. We don’t own it anymore. It’s not our to re-use. This is a huge problem in science. Imagine doing a series of experiments and planning a series of scientific publications based on those experiments. Now, imagine that the experiments were all formally identical just different in some detail, e.g. the quantity of some material used. Every article your write about this will have a “method” section in which you describe what you did. And you did the exact same thing, over and over. It’s awfully tempting to write a really great description of that once and use it repeatedly. And, in fact, you can do that — as long as you give it as a quote, and refer to the first place it was published, and acknowledge that publication. But what you can’t do is publish the same 5 paragraphs over and over and over and over and never indicate that they’ve appeared elsewhere. That’s plagiarism. Why? Because you gave that stuff away the first time.
    Now, there’s a solution to this situation, and it’s through Open Access publishing.
    I explain this problem and the solution at the following link. I hope you enjoy it. And I hope you’ll continue reflecting on this complicated issue. It’s not as simple as you make it sound at the end here.
    Whaddaya mean plagiarism? I wrote it myself! How open access can eliminate self-plagiarism:



Leave a Reply

* Required