Jonah Lehrer admits faking quotes; resigns from New Yorker

July 31, 2012 • 5:30 am

UPDATE: Over at The Daily Beast, disgraced journalist Jayson Blair offers a take on Lehrer’s sins and offers him some “advice”.

____________

At 31, Jonah Lehrer was a Wunderkind of popular science writing, with a regular gig at The New Yorker and three best-selling books on brain science under his belt (he was also a Rhodes Scholar). His latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, sold 200,000 copies and made the NYT bestseller list.  But I always found his writing a bit too slick, and sometimes erroneous, as I noted in two separate posts (here and here). He interviewed me by phone about the E. O. Wilson piece in the second link, and although I thought he understood the problems with Wilson’s work, what he published in The New Yorker was a lame and noncommital assessment of the “group selection” controversy.

I can’t claim that I’m prescient, but Lehrer was clearly an ambitious young man in a hurry, whose work I always saw as superficial. And now he’s been caught out.

According to yesterday’s Washington Post, Lehrer fabricated some quotes from Bob Dylan for his newest book, and the repercussions are serious:

A staff writer for The New Yorker has resigned and his best-selling book has been halted after he acknowledged inventing quotes by Bob Dylan. [JAC: See this separate NYT piece on Lehrer’s resignation.]

Jonah Lehrer released a statement Monday through his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, saying that some Dylan quotes appearing in “Imagine: How Creativity Works” did “not exist.” Others were “unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes.”

Lehrer said he acknowledged his actions after being contacted by Michael Moynihan of the online publication Tablet Magazine, which earlier Monday released an in-depth story on the Dylan passages in “Imagine”

“I told Mr. Moynihan that they (the quotes in question) were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said,” Lehrer wrote in his statement.

“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”

Houghton Mifflin said in a statement that Lehrer had committed a “serious misuse.” Listings for the e-book edition of “Imagine” will be removed and shipments of the physical book have been stopped.

Both the hardcover and audiobooks of Imagine are still listed on Amazon, but they seem to have pulled the main offerings, since there are almost no reader comments on the hardcover.

Michael C. Moynihan’s story in the Jewish magazine Tablet—the story that led to Lehrer’s downfall—is free online:Jonah Lehrer’s deceptions.”  It turns out that this is not the first time that Lehrer played fast and loose with his journalism:

Last month, Lehrer was accused of a curious journalistic offense: the act of “self-plagiarism.” Lehrer, a staff writer at The New Yorker and celebrated author of three books, cannibalized his own work, posting often word-for-word excerpts from Imagine on The New Yorker’s blog without noting that it had been published elsewhere. To some, it was a tenuous charge—as one journalist commented to me, this was like “being accused of stealing food from your own refrigerator.” Others highlighted the pressures brought to bear on young writers to produce more and more content.

It wasn’t the first time Lehrer’s fellow writers had raised questions about his work. Reviewing his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, philosopher Jonathon Keats upbraided Lehrer for a narrative larded with examples that “arbitrarily and often inaccurately” supported his thesis. The writer Edward Champion, who catalogued Lehrer’s recent recyclings on his blog, stated baldly that Lehrer was guilty of “plagiarizing” a paragraph from fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. A New York Times reviewer catalogued the “many elementary errors” in Imagine. And the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner, in a devastating review of Imagine, chided Lehrer for “borrowing (heavily)” from economist Edward Glaeser and claimed that “almost everything” in his exegesis of Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” was “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic.”

Lehrer’s Wikipedia bio gives a bit more information (I’ve removed the footnote numbers):

In 2012, it was reported that Lehrer had self-plagiarized several blog posts he had submitted to The New Yorker. All five of these blog posts now appear on The New Yorker website with editor’s notes listing where Lehrer had previously published related sentences, including The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Wired, and The Guardian. Additionally, Edward Champion reported that portions of Imagine: How Creativity Works had been published previously in various forms by Lehrer. In response, a spokesperson for Lehrer’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, stated: “He owns the rights to the relevant articles, so no permission was needed. He will add language to the acknowledgments noting his prior work.” Lehrer apologized for the unattributed reuse of his own work.

A correction appended to a different Lehrer article on The New Yorker website from January 2012 noted that unattributed quotations published in the original version of that article had been taken from the work of another writer.

Moynihan, the author of the Tablet piece, turns out to be something of a Dylan maven, and when he saw the dubious quotes in Imagine, he wrote Lehrer and asked for the source. After weeks of evasion and lying, Lehrer finally came clean.

Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”

Read Moynihan’s piece for a lot more gory detail.

Now you may think that making up a few Bob Dylan quotes, and then lying about them, is not an offense serious enough to warrant recall of Lehrer’s book or his firing at The New Yorker. But you must remember that publishers don’t vet the accuracy of books: they depend on the author to do so. Once an author has transgressed, how can they ever trust him again? And The New Yorker does vet quotes: it’s famous for its fact-checking.  The sin of that magazine is not in buying Lehrer’s fabrications (though I pointed out two errors in the New Yorker piece on Wilson), but in hiring a young man whose slick prose hid both his errors and his superficial conclusions.  The New Yorker is all too ready to favor style over substance, and it needs to do some serious soul-searching about this tendency.

Lehrer is, for the nonce, journalistic toast. It will take a long time, if ever, before publishers trust him again. And he’ll never again write for The New Yorker.  I’d feel sorry for him except that making stuff up and lying about it is nearly as big a sin in journalism as it is in science, and Lehrer scuppered a brilliant career by being in too much of a hurry. Did he really think he could get away with this?

Moynihan gives the eulogy:

A month ago, when Lehrer’s self-plagiarism scandal emerged, some supporters argued that it was simply the misstep of a young journalist. But making up sources, deceiving a fellow journalist, and offering accounts of films you have never seen and emails never exchanged, is, to crib Bob Dylan, on a whole other level.

70 thoughts on “Jonah Lehrer admits faking quotes; resigns from New Yorker

  1. wow. Shocking and shockingly stupid. The #1 rule about lying is never to lie about something that can be disproved!

    Perhaps he’ll have a career in fiction, being an expert in creativity and all.

    1. Especially when the disproving would be so easy and likely. Bob himself is still with us, for Pete’s sake!

      And even more especially when there’s no reason to lie. Is Dylan a dull character that needs to be “animated” with manufactured stories and quotes? As Mike LaFontaine would say: “I don’t think so.”

  2. The “ambitious young man in a hurry” phenomenon is kind of sad. Reminds me of the Jason Blair story from a few years back.

        1. If journalists can’t be bothered to fact-check, why would we expect a commenter on a web site to do so?

    1. Therein lies the rub. The charismatic and mostly accurate are always preferred over the dull and always accurate. The host of this site is among the personable and trustworthy. I like Lehrer, but similar to Gladwell, I do wholly trust him. Ronald Reagan may have said “trust but verify” as a joke, but with those guys, it is a cautionary message.

      1. Gladwell is another can of worms. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but he does a lot of (nicely paid) public speaking for the groups he writes about. Now maybe he walks on water and so he doesn’t have the kinds of conflict of interest difficulties that might plague lesser writers, but, huh.

  3. Can anyone find the fabricated quotes?
    The article mentions one:

    Among Lehrer’s inventions was a quote that first appeared in the famous documentary from the mid-1960s, “Don’t Look Back,” in which Dylan tells a reporter about his songs that “I just write them. There’s no great message.” In “Imagine,” Lehrer adds a third sentence — “Stop asking me to explain” — that does not appear in the film.

    1. Here’s another:

      “It’s a hard thing to describe,” Bob Dylan once mused about the creative process. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”

  4. Lehrer’s actions would still be inexplicable even if he had no understanding or familiarity with how fast and thoroughly the Internet factchecks. But Lehrer’s more or less a digital native. He’s grown up with this stuff in a way that journalists in their 50’s and 60’s haven’t. Obviously, Lehrer doesn’t take a risk unless he thinks he won’t get caught, but how can he have thought that?

    1. “…but how can he have thought that?”

      Tripped up by “ambitious young man in a hurry” brain-freeze?

    2. Nice “ageism” there.

      I’m a professional writer in my late 50s, and use the interweb tubes all the time to do research and check facts. Without those tubes, I couldn’t do my job.

      1. I’m sorry to have been offensive. I was trying to make a distinction between “digital immigrants” like myself and “digital natives” like my granddaughter, who was using her mother’s iPad before she could walk. In other words, it might be understandable (doubtful, but whatever)for a digital immigrant like myself to think there was an internet rock I could hide under, but for a journalist like Lehrer, it can’t be possible.

      2. I don’t think it was ageist. Marta wasn’t saying “These old people don’t understand teh internetz!”, (s)he was saying “Young people have no excuse for not understanding teh internetz.”

        To extend the immigrant/native analogy that Marta used, it’s like if we were talking about somebody’s terrible grammar and spelling, it would be relevant if they were an immigrant. It would be racist to say that immigrants have bad grammar/spelling. But it would not be racist to point out that it’s a lot easier to understand if an immigrant i>does have poor English grammar and spelling, than it would be for a native speaker.

        1. It is more like living while US formed than having immigrated. To have done that, you would have needed to loose some of the history by resisting the intertubz.

          As far as I can see it is ageist.

    3. One possibility – and I have no proof of this – is that he has done similar things in past works and gotten away with it.

      I believe (anecdotally) that that’s more or less the typical pattern for frauds. Its rarely the case that the mistake they’re caught for is their first and only one. More often, the fraud which is discovered first ends up being the last in a lone line of undiscovered ones.

      1. I think you may well be correct.
        When I read the initial articles about his ‘self-plagiarism’ a few weeks back, it was mentioned that others were likely to be going over his previous writings for more evidence of subterfuge.

  5. I think the “self-plagiarism” charge is a bit weak. And seriously, he could have fixed that with a footnote or an asterisk. Read Dan Dennett’s books. He does this all the time — lifting stuff from previous works and giving himself credit. Duh.

    Making up quotes? That’s way more troublesome. Especially if the quotes run contrary to the provable history/facts. In short, it’s lying, and no journalist who lies will be trusted — except if they’re on Fox News.

    It’s clear that he approached his work with a predetermined outcome in mind, and then molded the “facts” to fit his thesis. It’s pretty common failing.

    When I was a work-a-day reporter, I had an editor whose favorite phrase was “get him to say…” because she had already decided what the story was and had pre-written the headline. I never took that exhortation seriously, even though she was one of my bosses. Especially on the day she wanted me to get a source to say that HIV disease could be spread by mosquitoes.

    1. “…no journalist who lies will be trusted — except if they’re on Fox News.”

      Those are not journalists.

    2. think the “self-plagiarism” charge is a bit weak. And seriously, he could have fixed that with a footnote or an asterisk. Read Dan Dennett’s books. He does this all the time — lifting stuff from previous works and giving himself credit. Duh.

      Its still deception. In particular, he’s deceiving his employers into thinking he has written a new article for them when he hasn’t.

      As you say, there is nothing wrong with resusing one’s own material – IF that is what you have been hired to do. Lots of magazines and papers hire authors to revise excerpts from their books into 1-page magazine articles. Those can be great. There’s nothing wrong with that…IF its understood by employer, employee, and readers that that’s what you’re doing. But if you and I have agreed that I am paying you for NEW material, you are lying when you don’t produce any and recycle your old material instead.

      1. It’s kind of like when AC/DC releases a “new” song, but it turns out it has the same chord changes and melody as one of their old songs, just with different lyrics.

        1. I’m not sure that’s false marketing; I’m guessing a lot of people buy AC/DC albums because they can count on the next set of songs being exactly like the previous set. 😉

          1. Sufficiently similar, perhaps.

            Isn’t there a theory that music is exciting because you can just about predict it but not with certainty?

            Sort of like catching fish reward, you know you will get one… eventually.

            [Oh, no! I’ve got a WordPress menu – with popup lists of comment replies. The web rat has to go press buttons now.]

      2. Not if you credit yourself for the original material. Cite yourself and then the editor can made a determination if he/she wants it rewritten or not.

        Frankly, there are only so many ways of saying something. If I’m describing a clinical trial, I do it in a set way every single time — because it’s the most accurate way to do so. If I’m describing that clinical trial in multiple articles, it’s going to look exactly the same — because to do it any other way introduces potential error.

        And it’s just plain silly to rewrite “time-date-place” as “date-place-time” just to satisfy some google plagiarism algorithm.

        Maybe because I’ve been doing this (writing professionally) a long, long time it strikes me as far the lesser offense than making up quotes. As long as you add a footnote, or preface the reused material with a source commentary.

        Of course, Lehrer did neither, so I’m not giving him a free ride on this either. But I doubt that he would have been given the boot if his only tort was to quote himself.

  6. When his NYer piece about kin selection came out, I was excited to read it in hopes that it would distill/clarify some of the Tarnitas et al. argument for me. It didn’t. “Lame and noncommittal” is exactly right. Would you be willing to disclose what the errors were that you pointed out? Were they corrected?

    1. The link in my first paragraph should take you to my critique of the Lehrer’s piece on Wilson. And no, the errors, which aren’t big ones, but at least one of which should have been corrected, were never fixed.

  7. This story makes me sad. I think of how I’d feel if I was his friend, his parent, his sibling. Bolt out of the blue, perhaps. He’s so bright, so hard working, his life has had so much success and showed so much promise. And now what?

    Given his darker tendencies, he could have a career as a creationist, global warming denier, or advocate for some other pseudoscientific claptrap. I hope not. He’s got too much talent. Let’s hope he uses this episode as a lesson in tightening up the glibness and short cuts and slowly builds a reputation in some other literary field.

  8. “Oh what a tangled web we weave,
    When first we practise to deceive!”
    –from Shakespeare’s ….
    Er, OK that’s from Sir Walter Scott’s “Marmion”. Sorry, thought it was from Shakespeare.

    “I don’t even know the truth after all these lies I have told.”
    –Sophie is “Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron
    Oh, um, that’s the movie not the book. Sorry I didn’t mean to imply it is from the book.

    Yes, check the provenance of your quotes. It’s not that hard actually.

    1. JLH – I was all set to call you out there – nice one! As a Scot, I get really upset at that particular quote being attributed to Shakespeare, who has enough of his own great quotes, without second hand plagiarism.

      Colin.

  9. Last month, Lehrer was accused of a curious journalistic offense: the act of “self-plagiarism.” Lehrer, a staff writer at The New Yorker and celebrated author of three books, cannibalized his own work, posting often word-for-word excerpts from Imagine on The New Yorker’s blog without noting that it had been published elsewhere. To some, it was a tenuous charge—as one journalist commented to me, this was like “being accused of stealing food from your own refrigerator.”

    See now that’s just weird. Most authors would jump at the chance to say, “Here is an excerpt from my new book”, in the hopes of getting people to buy it.

    I’ve gotta think that the self-plagiarism was just sloppiness, because it just doesn’t even make sense from Lehrer’s point of view.

    As to the main story.. yeah, what a bummer. I remember reading and liking some of Lehrer’s articles in the New Yorker.

  10. What a shame. My policy in life is, no matter how much you screw up, never lie about it. And never fabricate. No matter how lame your writing is, it can always be improved. Lies and intentional falsehoods are far worse.

    Self-plagarizing has got to be the dumbest concept ever. The very defenition of plagarize is to take ideas from someone ELSE. Duplicating content, on the other hand, is annoying and I’m sure may be not allowed in some businesses.

    I tend to ramble on about old stuff on my blog, granted, but I ain’t getting paid to write it.

  11. This makes me very sad, particularly since I realize my own tendency to trust The New Yorker more that any other publication (scientific ones excluded, as they are in a different category). Articles in The New Yorker often have a great style, but I’ve never thought of the magazine as “favoring style over substance”. Oh well, lesson learned.

  12. How the mighty have fallen.

    I’m reading a biography of Charles Addams, the famous cartoonist who was often featured in the New Yorker. In the good old days (to coin a phrase), the magazine was run by people, real individuals. And you climbed to the top of their ladder on the basis of your accomplishments, not charisma. You had to prove yourself before you became a regular.

    I smell corporate committees, bean counters, publicists, and others more concerned with the sizzle than the steak in this matter.

    It sounds as if, were one to be editor of the New Yorker, a single line would suffice for all the youngsters struggling to get on board: go away and don’t come back until you are at least forty. Of course, that just would not do in our youth-centric culture where in there is no one over thirty.

  13. Bingo! He always struck us as a scam. WEIT picked this up long time ago with “Jonah Lehrer is Not a Neuroscientitst.”

    Shame that neuroscience, which is likely the most important are of science now — since it informs all human knowledge and endeavors — has to also be sullied but…..

    We maintain “popular science” is an oxymoron.

    1. In 1 day, that is the 2nd 3d person comment I read.

      Is it a fashion and/or to spite earlier characterizations to be either bad style or “spooky” (in a bigoted way on psychological problems)?

  14. He seems like a nice enough young writer, except for the lying of course. His work was stylish and readable, and so he likely wrote accurately about many things that educated laypeople about science-related topics. It’s too bad that this instance of mendacity will hang a cloud over his work—but it should. What he did can’t be excused. The lesson might be Nixonian: the cover-up may have been worse than the actual offense. When someone brought the error to his attention, he should have come completely clean, acknowledged the error, and issued an explicit apology. Doing so would have likely mitigated the now substantial damage to his reputation.

  15. I’ve said elsewhere(!) that the news industry is under huge pressure. Pressure to report immediately, pressure to find bigger and bigger dollops of content, pressure to reduce costs.

    As a consequence many newspapers go light on analysis and fill the empty pages with opinions. The useful characteristic about opinions is that they don’t have to be true, only entertaining.

    I wonder if Jonah Lehrer became confused about the difference.

    1. My guess would be that Lehrer’s deceptions were not caused by such pressures. The actual false quotations seems to have originated in Lehrer’s book. Secondly, The New Yorker is, from what I understand, a publication that is not exactly scrambling for content: David Remnick’s office is probably teeming with submissions and article pitches from top writers hoping to have their work appear in The New Yorker.

  16. Ouch.

    Lehrer was clearly an ambitious young man in a hurry, whose work I always saw as superficial.

    Not always to me, but too often. I don’t like lofty, spongy just so stories any more than I like gish gallops. Too much surface, no healthy content.

    So, yes.

  17. I’m sad for Jonah personally, but my main feeling is thank goodness this means he’ll be gone. His reporting has always been unbearably shallow and fatuous, as was his “Proust” book. It’s been distressing and frustrating to see him unaccountably made so much of by such wonderful reporters as The New Yorker and Radiolab staff. He must be personally very charismatic to have overridden people’s better judgment about the quality of his work. Hopefully this will make room for someone of real substance to inhabit that particular niche. But this isn’t the way anyone would want to see someone fall. Reminds me of how sad we all felt about Marc Hauser. Almost we feel personally betrayed: People who love science, and who help others to love it, should be the last to want to fabricate anything, even if they could be sure no one would ever find out. Why doesn’t knowing it’s not true make it taste to them like ashes?

  18. I have only read a little of Lehrer but he seemed a sensible popularizer. This story is a little odd to me.

    I doubt the quotes he made-up from Dylan made one bit of difference to the neuroscience points he was making. Quotes of this nature are there to make the story interesting not to provide anything substantive, at least as I have seen from the quotes someone suggested above. I guess the whole book is discredited based on integrity, but Lehrer, from what I have browsed, was not relaying ground-breaking material or thoughts in general. Obviously it does not look good, especially the way he handled it with the Dylan enthusiast.

    Anyways, weird.

  19. To Jonah Lehrer:

    How does it FEEL?

    How does it FEEL?

    To be on your OWN.

    With no direction HOME.

    Like a complete UNKNOWN.

    😉

    1. Hah – you had to leave out the next line because the Rolling Stones are not complete unknowns (yet).

  20. His arguments always seemed weak and superficial. He told people what they wanted to hear. I’m all for having a love-in between the arts & the sciences but Proust was not a neuroscientist, OK ?

    He just went from being lame to being a complete fraud.

    1. Is this Marcel Proust? He may not have been a neuroscientist, but wasn’t he some sort of alien spaceman?

  21. “The New Yorker is all too ready to favor style over substance …”

    Amen – that’s the way it’s always been in my lifetime. I stopped buying it by the mid 1990s because even the amusing articles became too infrequent and they were left with nothing but a pretense to style.

  22. I find it interesting that Moynihan admits to having “piles of live bootlegs” of Dylan, and then accuses Lehrer wrong-doing.

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