"Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” -- artist Pablo Picasso
Science writer Jonah Lehrer was caught fabricating Bob Dylan quotations in his new book.
by Jeff Bercovici Forbes Staff
It’s painful to read about the self-plagiarism and fabrication that has become the downfall of ex-Wired science writer, Jonah Lehrer.
After a brief stint at The New Yorker, Lehrer has resigned. His new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, has been pulled by its publisher and refunds are being offered to anyone who has purchased it.
This is because Lehrer fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in the book and was caught by journalist Michael C. Moynihan – a serious Bob Dylan fan and, apparently, an even more serious reporter.
He lied about the fabrications when confronted by Moynihan before finally coming clean.
Lehrer is 31 – my age, actually, though I write mostly about video games which makes me feel, at times, much younger.
Of course, Lehrer was far more successful than I am. He had a long-running and highly read blog at Wired and two successful books. He’s been on a lucrative public speaking circuit for some time now. And he’d just taken a high-profile writing gig at The New Yorker - the Holy Grail of writing jobs.
All told, his career was following closely in the footsteps of bestseller Malcolm Gladwell, as Slate writer Josh Levin points out. Both New Yorker writers, both “idea men” and both well-enumerated public speakers, the big difference between the two has now become appallingly apparent.
Earlier this summer Lehrer was caught copying and pasting large sections of his older work into new posts at The New Yorker, without disclosing that this was recycled material. He was given a slap on the wrist and the controversy passed.
Secretly recycling your own work is problematic, though not nearly so much as putting words into the mouths of American cultural icons. It’s also a red flag.
But both acts are strange and somewhat baffling, to say the least. I’ve quoted myself in the past – usually to point out the prescience of some earlier insight (ha!) or, as is so often the case, to note how badly wrong I got some prediction or other. But I’ve always noted when this self-quoting has occurred.
I’ve also probably repeated myself on various subjects (okay, I know I’ve been repetitive many times – it’s the nature of the blogging beast, I’m afraid) and likely even unwittingly paraphrased something I’ve written in the past.
And I’ve made my share of mistakes – whether getting some fact wrong or not taking the extra step required to go to the original source, and quoting secondary sources instead – and have updated and corrected those mistakes as quickly and thoroughly as possible. This can be a tough business, and it’s easy to err. It’s also embarrassing. The sting of having to correct yourself makes you more cautious in the future. As long as those mistakes aren’t intentional, and as long as writers own up to them and include corrections where due, this can be chalked up to human error. We learn from our mistakes, just like anyone. Or at least we ought to.
Still, I can’t for the life of me wrap my brain around the conscious decision that went into fabricating Bob Dylan quotes – not just in a blog post but in a book. It makes you question every single thing Lehrer has written. And I imagine the fact-checkers at publications he’s written at are pouring over his work already, as are the legions of DIY grassroots fact-checkers who inhabit internet-land.
Bob Dylan is an odd choice.
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.”
This is a tragic story. Lehrer’s career was enviable. I’ve never read his books, but I’ve enjoyed many of his blog posts in the past (admittedly, it’s been some time since I read his work, though.) He was a fine writer, with a knack for creating narrative, and turning questions of science and the brain into interesting stories. What he did he appeared to do quite effortlessly.
Writing isn’t easy, especially if you make it your career. It’s a struggle. There’s a lot of competition. Blogging is hard work simply because you need to constantly come up with new ideas, new insights, better and more thoughtful analysis. You need to be unique and stand out somehow.
Many of us would love to have the sort of success Lehrer enjoyed, especially so young.
Why throw it all away? Not just the success but the reputation, the trust of readers and friends and, I imagine, family? It’s baffling. I can’t pretend to understand it.