Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Jonah Lehrer

Like the Icarus of Greek legend wonder boy Jonah Lehrer has just crashed.

Icarus, you know, tried to fly out of Crete on wings made of wax and feathers. His father had warned him not to fly too close to the sun, but he, impetuous youth, ignored his father’s advice. The sun melted his wings and he drowned in the Aegean Sea.

Formerly, Lehrer had reported for Wired and written columns for The Wall Street Journal. He authored a best-selling book called Imagine and was recently made a staff writer at The New Yorker.

And then he was caught making up quotations in his best-selling book. In Imagine Lehrer had quoted Bob Dylan saying something that Bob Dylan never said. When journalist Michael Moynihan asked him about it, Lehrer lied.

When he was found out Lehrer resigned his position at The New Yorker. His publisher has stopped shipping his book and has pulled the ebook version.

Thus, one of America’s most promising young journalists destroyed his career, effectively, for nothing.

I have not read his book, but I would wager that he could have said whatever he had to say without making up Dylan quotations.

Whatever you think of Bob Dylan the truth is, Dylan is not a leading authority on aesthetics.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time that Lehrer was caught trying to get away with things.

When he became a New Yorker staff writer a few months ago Lehrer starting writing blog posts for the magazine’s web site.

Within a couple of weeks astute readers discovered that he was recycling old material, quoting himself at length, in an exercise that one was tempted to call self-plagiarism.

Perhaps he had run out of things to say. He is a young man,  someone whose knowledge must be somewhat limited. Still, rerunning your old material on The New Yorker site was unseemly, if not unethical.

Besides, it was The New Yorker, a place where they take such things extremely seriously.

One does not want to say that Lehrer stole from himself—what can it mean to steal from yourself?—but clearly he was cutting corners and was trying to get paid twice for a single piece of work.

Aside from the fact that it was slothful, it was deceptive and dishonest.

Since Lehrer wrote about matters psychological I have occasionally commented on his pieces.  Links here and here and here and here and here.

As a rule I found him to be capable but overrated. He had a flair for popularizing ideas, but his was hardly an authoritative voice in the world of psychology.

But, then again, he was very young, relatively speaking and one tended to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But how could a promising young man, with a very, very bright future before him have done something so utterly and totally stupid?

Why would he commit an unforced and unnecessary error that will very likely ruin his career.

One can speculate that there was too large a gap between what he knew and what people thought he knew. His real talent was, in my view, largely inferior to the talent that others imagined he had.

Cognitive dissonance, perhaps, between who he was and who his readers took him to be.

For now Lehrer will no longer be writing for major publications. He simply cannot be trusted.

Most likely, he will sit down to write a confessional memoir, explaining how and why he erred, asking for forgiveness.


Reviewing Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine for The New Republic Isaac Chotiner found that it was far worse than I imagined. Since Chotiner wrote his review two months ago, it is worth examining. More so since Chotiner raised issues of intellectual dishonesty and sloppiness.

About Lehrer’s chapter on Bob Dylan, a fabricated quotation is the least of his problems.

Chotiner writes:

The reason for dwelling at length on Lehrer’s consideration of Dylan is that almost everything in the chapter—from the minor details to the larger argument—is inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic. 

As for the larger issue of the quality of Lehrer’s book, Chotiner offers a decidedly negative judgment:

IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.
The irony of Lehrer’s work, and of the genre as a whole, is that while he takes an almost worshipful attitude toward specific scientific studies, he is sloppy in his more factual claims. (In one low moment, he quotes an online poll from Nature magazine to support one of his arguments.) I am not an expert on brain science, but for Lehrer to quote a study about the ability of test subjects to answer questions when those questions were placed on a computer screen with a blue background, and then to make the life-changing claim that “the color blue can help you double your creative output,” is laughable. No scientist would accept such an inference.

No comments: