By the age of 27, Jonah Lehrer had written two bestselling books on how our brains work in everyday life. He had a degree in neuroscience, a reputation as a whiz kid, and a nice smile.
But when journalist Michael Moynihan exposed Lehrer’s fabrication of a Bob Dylan quote this past August, things changed for Lehrer. Tweeters called Lehrer a fabulist and a fraud. Journalists wrote scathing articles about his deceit. Lehrer’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, recalled all copies of Imagine: How Creativity Works, the book in which Lehrer’s fictitious Dylan quote appears. Lehrer resigned from his position as a staff writer for The New Yorker and stopped posting blog articles and tweets.
Lehrer’s misdemeanour had people talking, and some of us wondered why it attracted so much media attention— it was just one misquote, after all. How could a small fabrication, a turn of a phrase, cause such a stir?
Let’s let the media backlash that followed the scandal speak for itself. The Guardian first hailed Lehrer, then a fresh young Columbia graduate, as “the prodigy who lights up the brain”, a writer smart and hip enough to give us the scientific explanations behind our everyday lives with panache. Lehrer wrote articles titled “Every Child is a Scientist”, “The Psychology of Nakedness” and “The Difficulty of Loving Strangers”. He wrote prophetically about the mysteries of the human brain. And he did it in style.
The Financial Times describes Lehrer as “skinny and energetic” and “handsome”. In an interview with CBC’s Radio One show Q, he wears quirky plastic-framed glasses and speaks at a rapid-fire pace about his work, which consists of three books and countless articles in major newspapers and science journals. Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, explains how writers like Marcel Proust and artists like Cezanne foreshadowed the field of neuroscience in their works.
Lehrer’s latest book, Imagine, promised to scientifically unravel the “profound mysteries behind creative thought”. Armed with a colourful cover and the promise of enlightenment, the book rapidly became a bestseller. Lehrer seemed to make science simple, attractive, and optimistic.
Then, on July 30, Michael Moynihan published an article titled “Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions” in Tablet, an online magazine. Moynihan had discovered that Bob Dylan had never said “It’s just this sense that you got something to say” to describe creativity, as Lehrer had claimed. In fact, many of the quotes that Lehrer had attributed to Dylan turned out to be Lehrer’s inventions.
Though he initially denied the claims, Lehrer finally said (through his publishers), “The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down.”
In late August, Charles Seife, a journalism professor hired by Wired.com to comb through Lehrer’s blog posts and articles, wrote an article that exposed Lehrer’s deeper transgressions. “Almost every Jonah Lehrer piece I examined showed journalistic misdeeds,” Seife wrote.
Among the misdeeds, Seife lists plagiarism from other journalists, plagiarism from press releases, false quotations, and fabricated facts.
“A journalist who repeatedly fails to correct errors when they’re pointed out is, in my opinion, exhibiting reckless disregard for the truth,” Seife writes, “Betraying the reader is the cardinal sin in journalism.”
Why would Lehrer lie at all? Seife suggests one possibility: because Lehrer could get away with it. Seife suspects that contemporary journalism, charged as it is by social media and readers hungry for information, made it possible for Lehrer to rise to fame in a flash by quickly publishing anything that sounded attractive.
David Carr, a New York Times columnist, came to the same conclusion. “Part of the problem with journalism online is that it all seems mutable,” he writes. “You are only as visible as your last post.” In other words, online journalism allows writers to edit and re-edit their work, and with it their identities. We see this in social media like Facebook and Twitter, which allow us to present ourselves as pretty and polished packages.
But plagiarism and fabrication has been around since the early days of the printing press, so social media can’t be the only factor. Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism at Columbia, suggests that as consumers, our attraction to image may also play a role in Lehrer’s success.
“Conjure me up a guy who talks science winningly, who shows you that everything is transparent, and does it in a self-help-y spirit,” Gitlin says. “In our age, a guy who looks cute and wonky is better positioned to get away with this than others.” Gitlin goes on to highlight an uncomfortable truth about our desire for answers: we are as tempted to believe pretty stories as we are to tell them.
The temptation to simplify and embellish the truth is dangerous in any science, but especially in the young and speculative field of neuroscience. In neuroscience, research builds on whatever is solid in previous research, findings are tentative, and theories about the human mind are always up for questioning. As Steven Poole writes in The New Statesman, “The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe.”
And even outside of scientific research—in politics, journalism, or everyday life—there are never simple answers or easy ways out. Lehrer’s fabrications are is inexcusable because even in a market of image and attractiveness, the plain truth still matters.
In October 2012, Lehrer told Los Angeles Magazine that he will write a new book on the subject of his misdeeds. “I’m writing something about the mistake and affair myself, if only so I can learn from the failing,” he says. “And I’d prefer not to talk until my writing is done.”