Jonah Lehrer — he of the self-plagiarism and fabricated Dylan quotes — tried to start rehabilitating himself last week, and it didn’t go well. He gave a speech and Q&A session at a seminar hosted by the Knight Foundation (which says “it supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism”). In it he laid out what he perceived were the causes of his misdeeds and how he intends to make sure they don’t happen again.
As a journalist, the author of this entertaining Forbes article was not impressed. This paragraph caught my eye:
The oddness of Lehrer’s thinking came into focus when he allowed himself to consider some of the factors that may have eased his way down the path of iniquity. One, he said, is his high intelligence. “For some cognitive biases, being smart, having a high IQ, can make you more vulnerable to them,” he said.
That’s really going to cause make Lehrer’s public feel sorry for him.
As a scientist, Jerry Coyne was not impressed.
When I was interviewed by Lehrer for his New Yorker story on E. O. Wilson, and saw the result, I sensed something amiss. There was such a disconnect between the science I taught him and what came out on the page that I suspected Lehrer was more interested in making a big splash than in the scientific truth. And, sure enough, truth has always taken a back seat to Lehrer’s self-promotion and desire to make a big splash at a young age.
In truth, and given the content of this speech, I sense that Lehrer is a bit of a sociopath. Yes, shows of contrition are often phony, meant to convince a gullible public (as in Lance Armstrong’s case) that they’re good to go again. But Lehrer can’t even be bothered to fake an apology that sounds meaningful. Call me uncharitable, but if I were a magazine editor, I’d never hire him; and we shouldn’t trust anything by him that’s not fact-checked by a legion of factotums. This is what happens when careerism trumps truth.
As a virtually unpaid fiction writer, though, I have to say I was impressed that Lehrer managed to get himself paid $20,000 for his little speech.
This whole thing makes it into my “Life is stupider than fiction” category–first, because Lehrer actually thinks he can rehabilitate his career by opining that his high intelligence was a cause of his problems. And second, because he got some charitable journalism foundation to pay him twenty grand for his deep thoughts on his malfeasance.
Upon sober reflection, the Knight Foundation realizes it may have made a bit of a mistake here.
Controversial speakers should have platforms, but Knight Foundation should not have put itself into a position tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism. We regret our mistake.
The comments below their apology are not kind.
WordPress posted a blog today about John McPhee, someone going on about McPhee’s placing theme before chronology in a few of his pieces. Big deal. McPhee was a New Yorker writer for years, and has produced roughly a book a year for most of his adult life. As far as I know, nobody has ever fact-checked McPhee and found him fabricating facts. Is it because McPhee is simply old-school, or because he’s ethical, or just a good journalist? If you were to stand Jonah Lehrer beside John McPhee, Lehrer would look like the narcissistic fraud that he is. And McPhee would look like a competent writer. The standard was always there for Jonah, he chose to ignore the principles of his craft, and he should pay the price.
I heard an interview with McPhee once where he explained why he didn’t put an author photograph on his books — he wanted people to pay attention to his words, not his face. I like that.