Jonah Lehrer, the brilliant young writer and theorist, is best known for his entertaining and convincing articles in Wired magazine, and for his three books about neuroscience and creativity. His last book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, was on U.S. bestseller lists for many weeks. His work is a boon for arts writers in other media too: We love to quote from his scientific-sounding research to prove what we intuited about the creative process.
He’s witty, articulate and erudite – and impossibly handsome, in a nebbish, Ivy League camp-counsellor way. He likes to pose for photographs with a few days’ stubble on his face, a hipster heartthrob. He is a star who rose fast.
Too fast, as it turns out. Controversy ensnared him a couple of months ago, after he was hired as a staff writer for The New Yorker’s online pages. Close followers of his work noticed that he was self-plagiarizing – copying fragments from his own previously published articles and books. This practice may seem irrelevant to readers, but recycling whole paragraphs for different employers is a no-no in the magazine business. A respected publication like The New Yorker promises its readers that its material is new and original – and to get a job there you have to promise that what you are producing is just that. The magazine was embarrassed by the incident, but did not fire Lehrer; he apologized, promised not to do it again, and continued to write.
There was debate among writers and reporters about the ethics of Lehrer’s habits. We all recycle ideas and stories for different publications; in fact the practice is recommended by any guide to freelancing, and by many journalism-school professors, as the only way to produce enough material to make a living. Lehrer had many supporters among the barely-employed ranks of writers everywhere: One famously said that plagiarizing yourself is like stealing food from your own refrigerator.
The effect of the mini-scandal, though, was to concentrate attention on Lehrer’s words and their sources. People became suspicious of his journalistic methods. Furthermore, a guy so young and so confident – 31 years old, with three books and a job at The New Yorker – is bound to create a certain amount of writerly jealousy. I’m sure he was loathed, particularly by male writers a little older than he, as much as he was admired.
One such guy, as it happened, a 37-year-old writer called Michael C. Moynihan, was looking closely at the sources of Lehrer’s recent book Imagine. He happened to be a big Bob Dylan fan, and tried to track down all the quotations attributed to Dylan in the book. He couldn’t find the sources and asked Lehrer where he found them; Lehrer lied.
After a few weeks of badgering, Lehrer admitted to lying and making up some of the Bob Dylan statements. Moynihan wrote up his detective work in a journal called Tablet. Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker on the day the story appeared. And so Lehrer has joined the ranks of the disgraced: the high-profile journalists who make stuff up or plagiarize, the Stephen Glasses and the Jayson Blairs. All of his brilliance will be rendered irrelevant by this taint.
Moynihan has become a minor celebrity for taking Lehrer down. A lot of people wanted to see Lehrer go down: He was just too successful, too prolific, too slick, too young.
What will happen now? First there will be a frenzy of fact-checking on all Lehrer’s work. The where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire principle tells us that further inaccuracies and inventions will be uncovered. Lehrer’s reputation is now permanently damaged, his career effectively over.
The question remaining, as always, is why. The guys who do this are so often already in the very top tier of imagination and talent. They don’t need to do it. Jonah Lehrer could make a convincing and entertaining argument for almost any proposition without resorting to invented statements by Bob Dylan.
Moynihan speculated in an interview earlier this week that Lehrer was simply under too much pressure to perform. The stress, Moynihan thinks, was too much for him. He had to produce too many neat explanatory theses, and the world isn’t that simple.
It’s disappointing that a man as sensitive as Lehrer wanted things to be so clear. He couldn’t resist making his argument perfect, flawless, supported by the statements of great artists. And those arguments would have been no less exciting had they been advanced as subtle theories with all the shading and self-doubt of truly sophisticated thought.