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 amazon.com 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.