My Thoughts On Jonah Lehrer

I was the biggest Jonah Lehrer fangirl ever. I made him pose in a photo during the St. Paul stop of his book tour. I’ve learned a ton from his writing, and even gave him a copy of a book I thought he’d enjoy. I defended him in various comment sections all over the interwebs, and went so far as to get in an editing war on Wikipedia because I felt he was being unfairly maligned. (What other authors have negative descriptions of their books on the main page?)

As someone who’s sung the praises of Jonah Lehrer far and wide, I’ve even gone so far as to post a spirited defense on these very pages when he was caught recycling his own content on multiple occasions.  In his most recent fiasco, Lehrer admitted to fabricating quotes he’d attributed to Bob Dylan, of all people, resigning from the New Yorker in the aftermath. And it turns out that even that was just the tip of the iceberg.

It appears that Lehrer’s had a pattern of deliberately writing inaccurate information, and then–at least in this instance–blaming it on his editor, and then continuing to spread the misinformation. See this piece by Daniel Bor on Psychology Today: Jonah Lehrer Charmed Me, Then Blatantly Lied to Me About Science.

It just makes me wonder how many studies he misinterpreted, how many quotes he spliced together, how many times he either didn’t do his due diligence to understand a study or deliberately misrepresented it, how many times he decided not to correct false information and then to continue writing about or quoting it even after being made aware of its inaccuracies.

I’m not entirely guiltless on this count. I’ve had minor errors, mostly typos, in pieces I’ve written pointed out to me, that I did not go back in and correct for various reasons. Sometimes the posts just paid too little and the copyeditors/proofreaders were nonexistent, so I decided to put my time and energy elsewhere. I’ve also done the opposite–printing retractions, explaining errors, correcting omissions when I felt that it was justified. But even if I hadn’t, there’s a difference between not correcting accidental errors and deliberately spinning lies. I’ve also worked with proofreaders and fact-checkers who I hired on my own dime to make sure material is clear and accurate–surely a star science writer could do the same. I’d venture the guess that some might even offer to do this free of charge, so dazzled were people with Lehrer’s brilliance and charm.

In some of my own defenses of Lehrer, I’ve come down hard on jealous journalists… so I don’t consider myself among them. And at the same time, what Lehrer did strikes me as so unfair. I don’t think I will ever have the writing talent he has, or the ability to make challenging concepts not only accessible, but so compelling–fascinating, even. And at the same time I’d like to operate on a level playing field. I’ve had pitches turned down from the same publications he’s been a star writer for, and if I was able to sort of finesse the truth to fit a pre-determined narrative of my choosing, I’m not sure that this would have been the case. Just recently, I spent four hours interviewing scientists and spokespersons about what I thought would be a really great pitch–only to realize there was no real story there. The narrative I wanted to tell just didn’t jive with the factual information out there. This is not uncommon for writers who value honesty and integrity.

When I interviewed Lehrer for the Performance Menu: Journal of Health and Athletic Excellence, he mentioned something about how people in red rooms were shown to be better at copyediting and long division, but when I looked at the study (“Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances“), I couldn’t find anything on division. I found “recall of words” and “proofreading.” When I asked him about it, he told me substituting “recall of words” and “proofreading” was fine with him, but he also said long division was a separate study.

Well, of course I spent forever trying to find this separate study because I wanted the most current information. I asked him who did the study or where it was published. All I could find on color and long division were studies on people using different colors of Skittles to represent different place value denominations. I started questioning my own research ability, and even reached out to some colleagues for help. Lehrer told me in an e-mail that it was a forthcoming paper, so that I should just go ahead and cut it. He told me he got access to forthcoming papers directly from scientists he interviews. I never did go back and checked to see if this alleged forthcoming study was ever released…but I have a feeling he just made it up.

Recycling work and splicing some quotes, or even intentionally misquoting a legend, is possibly forgivable. But what looks like a pattern of outright making things up, continuing to do so even when called out on it, blaming editors for inaccuracies he continued to repeat, and lying to cover it up… is pretty much the opposite of journalistic integrity in my book.

What a waste of talent.

This isn’t to say I agree with the tacky feeding frenzy in the blogosphere/echo chamber, though. It does indeed smack of jealousy and schaudenfreude in a way which is unbecoming to the industry. But I’d be lying if I said I was anything other than completely disappointed.

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