For those of you not across the controversy, New Yorker journalist Jonah Lehrer resigned as a staff writer for the magazine after it was revealed that he had fabricated a quote in his New York Times best-seller, Imagine: The Science of Creativity.

Jonah Lehrer's star was shining very brightly. Picture: Canongate

It took an investigation by one of his peers,  former VICE editor and Wall Street Journal freelancer,  Michael C Moynihan, whose expose in Tablet magazine led to Lehrer’s resignation.

In the very first chapter of the book, Lehrer creates, seemingly out of thin air, a narrative of Bob Dylan’s creative process which supported his theory that writers block was an inevitable part of inspiration and that the physiology of the brain’s make-up could almost predict this “frustration” like clockwork as an essential part of the creative process.

Except that at least seven of the quotes he attributes to Dylan are either made up, or spliced together from numerous interviews or taken completely out of context.

From a journalist’s perspective I can’t imagine what it must have been like having to write this expose. I’m sure that it wasn’t a scoop Moynihan was pleased to earn. Nobody enjoys bringing other people down, nobody with ethics anyway, but especially not one of your own. His comments in a Q&A with The Observer reflect that

But from a consumer’s perspective, it may be a long time before we see another book that tries to comprehensively explain through analogies and case studies how the human body works.

Lehrer’s writing style was reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell – taking big complex topics like social science and psychology and examining their unexpected consequences, breaking down theoretical concepts into real world examples.  Gladwell’s style of writing is engaging because it doesn’t require you to have a science Phd to understand it. Imagine was the Freakonomics* of psycho-physiology. Until it was revealed that at least part of the book was completely made up. 

It turns out that Lehrer’s style was more than just reminiscent of Gladwell. Lehrer actually plagiarised paragraphs from Gladwell’s Designs for Working on page 153 and 182 of Imagine.  This isn’t the first time he’s been in trouble either. Just last month it was discovered that he had plagiarised himself in his New Yorker blog, often copying whole parts of Imagine and recycling them in print.

More and more inaccuracies, fabrications and plagiarisms are being unearthed by readers every minute.

Writer, Edward Champion began cataloguing Lehrer’s fabrications on his blog about a month before Moynihan’s expose was published. He has been updating it with new discoveries every day since the 20th of June. 

Thanks to Lehrer’s fabrications, it will probably be a long time before we get another Imagine, because authors won’t want to be associated with Lehrer or his writing style. Consumers are the one who will miss out. Good journalism is the ability to explain big ideas in a way that is easy to understand but in a way that is both accurate and entertaining. People bought and read Imagine because they wanted to know how their brain worked, and how they could tap into their own biology to enhance their abilities.

I too began reading Imagine after being plagued by a serious bout of writers block and I’d be lying if I said Lehrer didn’t help me. Less than 24-hours after reading Imagine I went through one of the most creative spurts I’ve experienced it in a while, and even now I attribute this great unblocking to the advice he gave me through his book.

And this is why his unethical behaviour is such a massive betrayal.

There was some really good advice in Imagine. Maybe once we peeled back all the errors it might have better suited for the self-help section than the sciences (in which case less people would have bought it). But whatever truth existed in Imagine will forever be shadowed by doubt.

I want to believe that Lehrer didn’t mean to plagiarise. I want to believe that, like many of the people he discusses in his book,  that he was crippled by his own self-doubt, and that his errors were unintentional.

I really wish that I didn’t know that he lied to try and cover up his fabrications and that he had been caught plagiarising before. I want to forgive him. And I hope that he recovers from this because even with all this controversy, he is a good journalist.

But like it or not Lehrer’s fabrication problem will have long-term consequences on science non-fiction in years to come.

And consumers are the ones who will miss out.

*Freakonomics also got a beating in the New York Times for being inaccurate.

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35 comments

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    • Mahhrat says:

      07:20am | 02/08/12

      If the exposer wasn’t enjoying the exposing, then why not a quietly worded email to the author calling him out and suggesting he take action?

      If you really didn’t want to destroy a person’s career, there are subtler ways to do it than the scientific equivalent of scrawling “THAT PERSON IS LYING TO YOU” all over the bloody place.

    • Markus says:

      08:28am | 02/08/12

      The exposer tried that first, questioning Lehrer directly on the accuracy/legitimacy of some of the quotes, only to be met with more lies about them coming from super special archival footage provided to him especially by the Dylan estate.

    • maybe says:

      01:38pm | 02/08/12

      “Dylan estate”...? can you have an estate if you’re not dead yet?

    • trigger says:

      07:32am | 02/08/12

      “Consumers are the one who will miss out”

      Ah don’t we all just love a cheat?

      Well, no actually .. we don’t.

      It’s not us, it’s you who has the problem, we all know and even the publisher knows, you don’t encourage cheating under any circumstance otherwise you end up being a hypocritical leftie .. oh wait.

    • stephen says:

      07:52am | 02/08/12

      Wow, another ‘Genius’ bites the dust.
      I’ve got a question, though : the word is that this chap had much earlier been accused and had admitted plagiarism, so how did he get a job with The New Yorker ?

    • Markus says:

      08:30am | 02/08/12

      I thought a track record of blatant plagiarism was a pre-requisite to any career at the New Yorker.

    • stephen says:

      07:13pm | 02/08/12

      Long Island gossip, as is The New Yorker, is not worth the cheat, and if this chap is so talented how come he ain’t writing up creativity at Rolling Stone ?

    • T-rev says:

      08:05am | 02/08/12

      Moral of the story: don’t lie, and don’t plagiarise.

      It will taint everything else you have done (and will do) once you are exposed.

    • acotrel says:

      09:22am | 02/08/12

      Surely most scientific research is ultimately plagiarism?  It is usually based on papers from a select few in any field, if you check the bibliography. Just because research papersof PhDs list the source documents, that doesn’t remove the obligation for the author to make their own contribution to the knowledge base. But let’s face it, the Yanks are never very creative these days, they always seem to base their work on what suits the potential market.

    • Al says:

      09:57am | 02/08/12

      acotrel - no, plagarisim is putting forth work of another person as your own.
      Using others work as a basis or providing quotes is not plagarisim, only if it is presented in a way that it appears to be your own work or you have not actualy provided credit (i.e. Source documents) is it plagarisim.
      As such, not contruibuting any additional work and/or drawing a different conlcusion would fall under plagarisim but simply using them as a source, as long as it is clear that it is the work of another, is not plagarisim.
      There also needs to be a ‘significant contribution’ to the final paper (although this is a subjective requirement).
      Otherwise we could simply say everyone who has ever written anything is guilty of plagarisim as all the words have been used elsewhere.

    • Angas says:

      08:47am | 02/08/12

      “Thanks to Lehrer’s fabrications, it will probably be a long time before we get another Imagine, because authors won’t want to be associated with Lehrer or his writing style.”

      I don’t understand what the evidence for this is. Why would other authors retreat from writing an accessible and presumably profitable book on this topic just because one of their peers wrote one badly?

    • iansand says:

      08:55am | 02/08/12

      Plagiarise
      Let no one else’s work evade your eyes.
      ......

      Only be sure always to call it please research

    • Michael S says:

      08:59am | 02/08/12

      Thou shalt not tell whoppers. Mark 17:5

    • Listen Toots says:

      09:33am | 02/08/12

      “...plagiarising himself on his New Yorker blog”
      To be fair…if you are citing your own work, is that really plagiarism?

    • James1 says:

      10:54am | 02/08/12

      Using your own work without citation is still plagiarism.  If your use of the work of others or yourself is accompanied by correct citation, it is not plagiarism.

    • Helen Ware says:

      10:08am | 02/08/12

      Most African students have never heard of writers block. Their words pour out. Then they come to the West and ‘learn’ that to be real writers they must experience a block , so they do. Not biology - but culture.

    • year of the dragon says:

      12:54pm | 02/08/12

      What’s with the rascism?

    • Winston Smirth says:

      10:10am | 02/08/12

      Surely, the message of Lehrer’s book now should be that imagination, creativity and cognition can be circumvented for appropriation and laziness.  That when you are confronted by impediments to creativity, and that inspiration and originality disappear into the mire of frustration and despair, always know that you borrow other’s work or that you can just resort to making shit up.

    • SydneyGirl says:

      10:21am | 02/08/12

      Too bad the consumer is being “deprived” of Imagine but plagiarism is plagiarism.  And as Salon pointed out that there is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world which explains the rise and rise of Galdwells and Lehrers. So there is that. 

      Also most folk were like New Yorker writers get paid THAT much - apparently this guy lives in a fancy-schmancy pad!

    • mick says:

      10:24am | 02/08/12

      It’s funny, all the lefties were apoplectic about Andrew Bolt’s “poor journalism”, but evidently for people you like, or are mates, it’s fine

      i love a good double standard, it certainly generates respect doesn’t it?

      or not ........

    • James1 says:

      11:32am | 02/08/12

      These are quite different cases, though. Bolt was inaccurate, in that he made mistakes that were likely the result of sloppy research.  Lehrer just plain copied other people and made stuff up.

      Bolt admitted his mistakes, whereas Lehrer actively tried to gloss over them.

      Finally, Bolt was attacked for political reasons - for his views.  Lehrer actually did something very wrong and is being attacked on that basis.

      So it is not a double standard as such.  It is two different standards being applied in very different situations.  None of that excuses the political attacks on Bolt, though.

    • simonfromlakemba says:

      12:56pm | 02/08/12

      Another article with the standard lefty bashing. Gets tired after a while.

    • egg says:

      11:00am | 02/08/12

      Goodness, but isn’t he a pretty little liar?

      *google image search*

    • Bob Dylan says:

      12:29pm | 02/08/12

      It all goes to prove that, as Bob Dylan used to say, “You can’t trust people who make up quotes”.

    • Chucky says:

      02:50pm | 02/08/12

      The problem with quotes on the internet is how hard it is to verify their authenticity
      —Abraham Lincoln

    • Markus says:

      02:58pm | 02/08/12

      I sense a fake Bob Dylan quotes meme coming.

      I approve of any such development.

    • St. Michael says:

      03:25pm | 02/08/12

      The **** is this crap?
      —Confucius

    • year of the dragon says:

      01:03pm | 02/08/12

      “But from a consumer’s perspective, it may be a long time before we see another book that tries to comprehensively explain through analogies and case studies how the human body works. “

      I don’t get this. Why will refraining from fabricating “facts” prevent writers from writing.

      I’m a bit lost on the comparison between Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell supported by a comparison between Lehrer’s book and Freakonomics.

    • Markus says:

      03:01pm | 02/08/12

      “I don’t get this. Why will refraining from fabricating “facts” prevent writers from writing.”
      Because it will make the other writers wary of being caught out for their own similar bullshit.

      I still fail to see how that is a bad thing.

    • AdamC says:

      01:05pm | 02/08/12

      Should I be concerned that, prior to reading this article, I had heard nothing about this American journo/writer, nor this apparent ‘scandal’ and that, after reading it, I don’t care?

    • St. Michael says:

      01:16pm | 02/08/12

      “I too began reading Imagine after being plagued by a serious bout of writers block and I’d be lying if I said Lehrer didn’t help me. Less than 24-hours after reading Imagine I went through one of the most creative spurts I’ve experienced it in a while, and even now I attribute this great unblocking to the advice he gave me through his book.”

      Placebo, then.  This is justifying the lies, nothing more.  It’s the same excuse that James Frey gave over “A Million Little Pieces”, and the same excuse Robert Kiyosaki gives for the fabricated stories he tells in his “Rich Dad Poor Dad” series.  (Right down to the title, in Kiyosaki’s case - it is now highly in doubt that the ‘Rich Dad’ of the title ever actually existed anywhere other than Kiyosaki’s fertile imagination.)

      To which I’d say, fine, if the book occupies the fiction section of the bookstore and not the non-fiction aisle.

      Say I told you there was a treasure chest buried in your backyard, and you went searching for it for three days, digging and sweating.  At the end of those three days, I told you I lied about the treasure chest being there, “But hey! At least you got fit in the process of looking for it!”

    • Robert S McCormick says:

      03:12pm | 02/08/12

      Who are any of these people?
      Do they matter a damn to anyone other than themselves?
      Isn’t this just more of the same coming out of the USA?
      After all assorted US presidents have had no difficulty whatsoever in telling lies so why should any of their citizens have any or not do as people like:
      Bill Clinton “I did not have sex with that woman” Maybe not the full thing, Billy, but you did get a blow-job.
      George W Bush: ” Iraq has Weapons of Mass Destruction, so I am (illegally) going to invade”
      Richard Nixon’s entire life was built around his lies.
      Look at the lies he & JF Kennedy told about Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos.
      At least those so-called quotes did not kill, maim or burn anyone.

    • St. Michael says:

      05:16pm | 02/08/12

      Put it this way: you can tell a politician is lying by the fact his lips are moving.  Journalists generally don’t have the same reputation, so it’s of concern when one decides to be a bit economical with the truth.

    • Michael R says:

      09:28pm | 02/08/12

      Yeah, what a shame. I liked Lehrer’s previous book How We Decide. He was part of the “affective revolution” showing us the full relationship between reason and emotion, as demonstrated so well by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. So unnecessary.

 

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