The Jonah Lehrer scandal: Opinions from the experts

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Jonah Lehrer, from Flickr Creative Commons, user Vivanista1, http://www.flickr.com/photos/54585499@N04/5471320337/

This week, famed author Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker after journalist Michael Moynihan revealed in Tablet Magazine that Lehrer had invented quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in his book Imagine. In June, Lehrer was caught self-plagiarizing old articles for his New Yorker blog Frontal Cortex.

While Lehrer’s self-plagiarism controversy tarnished his reputation, this week’s controversies led to serious questions about Lehrer’s credibility as a writer and expert. Not only did he make up quotes from one of the 20th Century’s most popular and legendary singers, he lied about their accuracy when confronted with the truth.

I read Imagine, and enjoyed it thoroughly. My favorite section was the first chapter, “Bob Dylan’s Brain,” which is where these made-up quotes appeared. So, I’m upset that Lehrer’s quotes from Dylan are not accurate. I think the book has some interesting ideas, but now I’m unsure what to make of the accuracy of most of these claims.

I read Imagine at an important time in my life. Over the past few months, I’ve boosted my creative output by a significant amount. I’ve started promoting my interests in online and in print. Readers of this blog will see some of the results of this increase in creative activity, and more is on its way.

Since I wrote about Lehrer’s book in previous posts, I won’t spend a lot of time explaining why this book had an impact on my writing and approach to creative activity. Basically, it helped me accept that my approach to creative work is most successful when I focus and give myself time to think and experiment.

I wanted to write an extensive analysis of Lehrer’s mistakes, but since this is such a high-profile story, I feel like many other writers with more knowledge of publishing and of Lehrer’s work over the past couple years said what I was thinking.

I’ve picked three of my favorites (one’s that represent my views) below with a short summary. Read on for more:

1. Jonah Lehrer thows it all away, by Roxane Gay, Salon.com.

After pointing out Lehrer’s journalistic mistakes and his arrogance, Gay says Lehrer

fits the narrative we want about a boy genius. He is young, attractive and well educated. He can write a good sentence. He can parse complicated science for the masses and make us feel smarter for finally being able to understand the complexities of the human mind. He is the great white hope.

She continues by placing him and his actions within a publishing system that “allows magazines, year after to year to publish men, and white men in particular, significantly more than women or people of color.” The problem with this, she says, is that the same system that is upset with his actions will want to resurrect his image: “he is a product of a system that encouraged and enabled his behavior. This is about sowing and reaping. That same system will help Lehrer find redemption.”

2. On the Freewheelin’ Fall of Science Writer Jonah Lehrer, Erik Kain, Forbes.

Erik Kain explains his confusion over Lehrer’s actions, saying that a culture of quick publishing online and his speaking gigs allowed Lehrer to make mistakes and cut corners without being detected. Kain also comments on Lehrer’s age (31, quite young to be considered such an expert). Finally, he points out the absurdity of Lehrer misquoting Bob Dylan:

For one thing, Dylan has said so many things over the course of his career that there’s really no shortage of actual quotations to draw from. For another, Dylan is still alive and has a devoted following. If you’re going to put words into someone’s mouth, Dylan must be one of the worst choices of all time.

This is the age of the internet, after all. As Howard Kurtz reports Moynihan saying: “We’re in a technological culture where it’s much easier to catch [...] Had one tried to expose Jonah Lehrer’s quotes in 1925, good luck.”

3. Jonah Lehrer and the Trouble with Facts, Stuart Kelly, The Guardian.

This article exposes how authors create fake identities online with such ease, and how this, along with changes in publishing that has diminished the responbilities of editors:

The rise of the digital sphere has happened at the same time as the roles of editor, sub-editor and copy-editor in publishing books and newspapers have diminished – whether a causal connection exists or not is a moot point. Certainly, there are few editors today to compare with Alan Glover, who sent so many letters of correction to Penguin that Allen Lane employed him. (In so many ways there are none like him: horn-rimmed glasses, a photographic memory, rumoured to be covered in tattoos from his collar to his cuffs, by turns a Quaker, Franciscan tertiary and Buddhist, and imprisoned in HMP Winchester as a conscientious objector. Jeremy Lewis records in his biography of Lane that Glover would disconcert people by referring to his time at Winchester before revealing he meant the prison, not the school.) And even without an eagle-eyed editor, the contract is between the author and the publisher. It was Lehrer’s duty to be accurate, not his publisher’s to catch him out.

***

It’s still unclear what will come of this scandal. Hopefully, we’ll know soon what will happen with Lehrer’s work. For now, his publisher has pulled all copies of Imagine, and we’ll see what other types of plagiarism or inaccuracies come out in the next few months, if any.

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.

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