Jonah Lehrer: My high IQ made me do it

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.


Should we be worried that Jonah Lehrer’s ebook has melted into air, into thin air?

. . . and leaves not a rack behind?

Jonah Lehrer, you may recall, is the young author who made up some Dylan quotes in his book Imagine and was caught self-plagiarizing on his New Yorker blog and elsewhere.  See here and here.  It’s not a good time to be Jonah Lehrer.

Imagine, not surprisingly, has been withdrawn from the market, without any online explanation of what happened.  Now an Atlantic writer worries that the disappearance of the ebook from ebook shelves is a bad thing.

There are now links to used copies on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble; original links to the items are still inactive, and at the original time of writing, there were no links at all, used or no. Lehrer’s author site on Amazon still does not link to any of the marketplace vendors.

She connects this situation to the time Amazon disappeared copies of some editions of Orwell novels from readers’ Kindles because of copyright violations.

When Orwell pulled a Kindle disappearing act, David Pogue called Amazon’s actions, “ugly for all kinds of reasons.” Even though (as far as I know) no purchased copies of Imagine have disappeared off of electronic readers, the ugliness is just as strong in the current reaction to Lehrer’s missteps. It is worrisome that the book has virtually disappeared from the most prominent online retailers—and the publisher itself. A simple note saying that sales have been halted pending further verification, or something to that effect, would have been a much more honest, transparent solution. When contacted for comment on the specifics of the decision, Amazon stated simply that, “At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s request, we halted sales of ‘Imagine’ in all formats.” No reply was made to the specific issue of how the request was handled. HMH did not provide a response, nor did Barnes and Noble.

To me, this seems like much ado about nothing (to bring Shakespeare into the post again).  Imagine is still easily available as a used hardcover on the Internet.  No one has removed the existing ebooks from peoples e-devices.  So Imagine is certainly leaving a rack behind. (In this sense a rack, the Internet tells me, is a fast-moving cloud, a vapor.)

I suppose in some ways it’s easier to disappear ebooks than to destroy physical books, but as readers at Andrew Sullivan’s site point out, in other ways it’s much easier to save an ebook, if you think it’s worth saving:

Jonah Lehrer’s book was bought and downloaded by thousands of readers before it was recalled. The tools to remove an e-book’s DRM encryption are freely available and trivial to use, even for a low-tech buyer with a cheap PC. Once the book is decrypted, it’s just another file on a computer, as easy to copy and send around as any photo or Microsoft Word document. E-book files are tiny compared to other commonly-pirated media like movies and music; most are under 10 megabytes, which is small enough to send as an email attachment. And if they’re stripped of their fancy formatting and converted into plain text, they get even smaller. Project Gutenberg’s entire collection of over 40,000 public-domain titles would fit comfortably on an average iPod.

And then there are the increasing numbers of ebooks (like mine) that don’t even have DRM.  I’m basically trusting that most people aren’t jerks.

And here’s another angle: I wonder if Lehrer would have any difficulty getting the rights to Imagine back from the publisher.  If he did that, he could get rid of the made-up stuff, write a new introduction explaining that the devil made him do it, mistakes were made, or whatever, and sell the ebook for $2.98 or some other fraction of the publisher’s original ebook price.  I’m sure he’d sell a bunch of copies!  Step 1 in his rehabilitation.

When I started my ebook venture, I went looking for an unpublished novel of mine that I thought might be worth self-publishing as an ebook.  Couldn’t find the hardcopy.  Could only find softcopy of the first draft.  Yikes!  I vaguely remembered sending a copy to my friend Jeff, so I dashed off a desperate email.  Twenty minutes later I had my novel back.

Computers are our friends.

Lying — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t

Dunno why I’ve gotten so interested in lying lately.  But it keeps popping up in the news.  Here we see the ex-Yahoo CEO landing on his feet at some new high tech company.  He was the guy who lied on his resume by claiming an extra minor degree from an obscure college instead of going for broke with a bogus Oxford Ph.D. or something.  And now we see Fareed Zakaria getting himself in hot water by copying text from a New Yorker writer on his blog.

So I went and read Sam Harris’s free book on lying.  But he doesn’t really doesn’t have much of interest to say about the subject.

If you leave religion out of the picture (which, of course, Harris does), you generally have two ways of approaching lying (and other moral issues): the utilitarian way or the Kantian way.   If you go the utilitarian route, you can ask whether a particular lie adds to or subtracts from human happiness.  If you go the Kantian route, you can ask whether there is a categorical imperative not to lie, because that’s the way people should behave.  Harris dismisses Kant rather breezily, so we’re left with a utilitarian discussion, in which he brings up various cases where it might seem that lying would be a good idea, but it turns out not to be.  People lie to grandma about her terminal cancer, and everyone is worse off.  Harris tells a friend that his screenplay sucks, and the friend turns out to be grateful.  That sort of thing.  So, the world is better off if we don’t lie.

But that’s too easy!  Because obviously there are cases where lying works.  The Yahoo CEO lied on his resume, and eventually it tripped him up, but not so much that it ruined his career.  Mitt Romney is setting Olympic and world records for lying, and for all I know it may get him elected president.

One can, of course, make the case that lying is (at least in general) bad for society, even if it helps the individual.  So it comes out behind in the utilitarian equation.  And I’ll buy that–I don’t want Mitt Romney to become president!  But that’s uncontroversial.  The interesting thing, for me as a writer anyway, is the moral dilemma that lying presents to the individual.  In Senator, I present the protagonist as a presumably moral guy who ends up lying throughout the entire novel.  But he feels bad about it–it worries him, not just because he might get caught, but because it’s wrong.  Did it worry the Yahoo CEO?  Does it worry Romney?  Is Romney making utilitarian arguments to himself about the greater good that his lying is supposed to achieve?  Or is this just another business decision for him?

I wish Harris had spent more time looking at issues like that.  But I suppose this is why some people write novels instead of philosophy.

While I’m here, I’d like to recommend Rick Gervais’s weird little movie The Invention of Lying, which treats the issue of lying in an amiably subversive way.

Sam Harris is opposed to lying — go read his free ebook about it

I find that Sam Harris is always interesting, even when I disagree with him (and lots of people disagree with him about lots of things).  He has a post up on his site about Jonah Lehrer. In response to the Lehrer scandal, he has made his short ebook Lying available for free as a PDF for the rest of the week.  You’ll find a link to it in the Lehrer post.  I have started reading it, and his position on lying is pretty clear — he’s agin it.  My sense is that Harris is not an especially deep thinker, but he is a clear and graceful writer, so you may want to check out his book — it’s only about 60 pages.

I also have Harris’s book Free Will on my e-queue. He’s not necessarily agin free will, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think it exists.


Self-plagiarism is one thing; making stuff up is something else entirely

The last time we encountered Jonah Lehrer, he had been caught committing the odd crime of self-plagiarism.  Things have now taken a turn for the worse. In fact, his meteoric career has crashed and burned, as meteors tend to do, with the revelation that he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  This time he ran afoul of the relentless reporting of a journalist and Dylan freak named Michael Moynihan, writing for Tablet magazine.  (Tablet‘s website has apparently also crashed and burned, and I can’t link to the article.)  Here is a report that quotes Moynihan:

I’m something of the Dylan obsessive — piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books — and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer — the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted — I came up empty, and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complimented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.

He finally got Lehrer to confess.  The result: his book has been recalled, and he has had to resign from the New Yorker.

I imagine that Lehrer thought he could get away with his fabrications because book publishers don’t do the kind of obsessive fact-checking that the New Yorker is famous for.  But it’s a terrible risk to take, especially when you’re fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for a public with any number of Dylan obsessives in it.  As with the self-plagiarism, it seems to be a case of cutting corners.  At least he came up with what sounds like a sincere apology:

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. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed.

That’s pretty classy in a world of mealy-mouthed passive-voice pseudo-apologies. The classic in this genre is Newt Gingrich blaming his love of country for his adulteries:

“There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

Things happened–lovely.  Anyway, this blog is primarily about fiction, and in fiction you don’t have to apologize for making stuff up.  On the other hand, you do have to apologize for stealing stuff.  Don’t steal stuff. It’s not worth the risk of getting caught, and the more successful you are, the more likely you are to get caught.  Here is the sad story of an overachieving Harvard student who plagiarized passages in a big-time young-adult chick-lit novel she wrote.  Wikipedia tells you much more than you want to know, comparing passages from her novel with similar passages from half a dozen others.  The really sad part of the story is that a few years after the plagiarism controversy her parents died in a plane crash.

I hope she gets over it.  I hope Lehrer gets over it, although I doubt he will.  From the New Yorker blog posts I read, I’d say the guy knows how to write.  He just lost sight of the rules.

Self-plagiarism: mortal sin, venial sin, or huh?–who cares?

Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker has been caught recycling old material for his new blog Frontal Cortex. The New Yorker has had to add editor’s notes to all the blog entries in which they “regret the duplication of material.”

I haven’t read Lehrer’s books, but his blog shows him to be a fine writer working the Malcolm Gladwell vein — giving an entertaining layman’s spin on findings from social psychology, neuroscience, and the like.  Good stuff!

The Slate writer seems to have put his finger on at least part of Lehrer’s problem: it’s just to hard to keep coming up with new material.

Given that continuous cycle of creation and reuse, blogging seems to have been a bad idea for Jonah Lehrer. A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight. In populating his New Yorker blog with large swaths of his old work, Lehrer didn’t just break a rule of journalism. By repurposing an old post on why we don’t believe in science, he also unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired. For Lehrer and The New Yorker, the best prescription is to shut down Frontal Cortex and give him some time to come up with some fresh ideas. The man’s brain clearly needs a break.

That sounds about right.  Between June 5 (when the blog apparently started) and June 13, Lehrer put up five blog posts — each of which was the equivalent of a nicely crafted magazine-quality column.  It’s not surprising that he cut some corners.

Part of the problem has to be that Lehrer is trying to make a living from his blog (among other things).  Blogs have no deadlines (unless the New Yorker imposes them), but there are expectations associated with them.  There are plenty of blogs that I don’t frequent any more because the author updates them too infrequently.  If you want traffic, you need content.  Lehrer was trying to feed the beast and decided he needed to use leftovers.

And what kind of sin has Lehrer committed?  Mostly a sin of stupidity, I’d say.  You can’t expect to get away with self-plagiarism on the Internet, and you can’t expect some people not to gloat at a misstep from a young hotshot.  A little note at the end of each post saying what the editor’s note now says at the top of the post would have sufficed, I think.

But wait!  This blog is about me, not Jonah Lehrer!  Please note that today is my six-month blogging anniversary, and I haven’t been caught self-plagiarizing once! (I’ve quoted extensively from my novels, but I believe blogging etiquette allows this.)  I’ve tried to follow my own writerly advice and make blogging a habit, so I’ve averaged about a post a day — although, granted, some of them consisted mainly of YouTube videos.  I guess I cut corners, too.

Anyway, advice about how to improve the blog would be gratefully received.