[Blog] Jonah Lehrer Fabricates Quotes; Commentary Commences

Jonah Lehrer / – poptech

Jonah Lehrer, a 31-year-old science journalist and three-time author, has conceded to fabricating several quotes in his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.


Lehrer gave a talk at Occidental College a year ago, and some of us students were blown away by how smart and scrupulous he seemed. Later in “Popular Science Writing” class, we tried to emulate his techniques for making complex scientific ideas seem simple and engaging.

Despite Lehrer’s success and acclaim, his career is kaput, at least for now.  And since we all love a good scandal, armchair pundits are pummeling the Blogosphere and Twitterverse with commentary, building up the story and its implications.

  1. Bay Area Discovery Museum Discovery Forum
    Mon, Feb 07 2011 16:00:00
  2. The story broke via Tablet, a Jewish online news magazine, and the New York Times was quick to pick up the news and share details: Lehrer had attributed several quotes to Bob Dylan that, actually, didn’t exist. Michael C. Moynihan, a Tablet writer and major Dylan fan, discovered the discrepancy by carefully reviewing the book and its sources, and by corresponding with Lehrer. At first, Lehrer claimed to have sources for all the quotes. But Moynihan couldn’t verify them, and Lehrer eventually said: “The lies are over now,” and resigned from the staff writer job he had recently accepted at the New Yorker.
  3. Official players in the story weighed in, too, including Moynihan and David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker.
  4. mcmoynihan
    Jonah Lehrer has resigned from the New Yorker and apologized to me. Not that this matters, but I accept his apology and wish him luck.
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 10:42:25
  5. Poynter
    New Yorker editor David Remnick: “This is a terrifically sad situation” Why he changed his mind about Dylan profile
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:23:21
  6. Then, another blow:
  7. HuffPostBooks
    Bestselling book pulled after author admits fabricating quotes
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:31:58
  8. Some said we should have seen this coming. Lehrer’s credibility had been thrown into doubt just weeks ago. When he transitioned from Wired to The New Yorker, editors discovered that Lehrer had “self-plagiarized.” That is, he took his own writing and reproduced it as original material.
  9. SusanReimer
    Still trying to get my head around the new crime of “self-plagerizing,” but, people, you can’t make sh*t up.
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:42:49
  10. roeberg
    Shouldn’t Jonah Lehrer have resigned weeks ago when we found out he recycled his own work?
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:31:17
  11. It was not a typical plagiarism case, raising questions such as: What is “self-plagiarism?” It is always wrong, or sometimes acceptable? In what instances? How to confront the problem? New Yorker editor David Remnick apologized and said he discussed the issue with Lehrer. For his part, Lehrer swore never to do it again.
  12. But it’s a short step to another point — are there more examples of journalistic wrongdoing?
  13. putneydm
    My guess is that we’ll eventually find out that Bob Dylan quotes wasn’t the only thing Jonah Lehrer made up.
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:18:25
  14. Some commentators were quick to compare the issue to other infamous plagiarizers.
  15. nrmaharaj

    James Frey. Greg Mortensen. Jonah Lehrer.Who else?

    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:31:09
  16. ElaineLiner
    Shortcuts in journalism lead to short careers. Tough lesson for Jonah Lehrer. Stephen Glass. Jayson Blair. Janet Cooke.
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:32:08
  17. donrearden
    Finish this:
    Jonah Lehrer and James Frey walk into a bar…
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:20:35
  18. Many noted the irony of the book’s title.
  19. Crutnacker
    Sounds like Jonah Lehrer has shown us exactly “How Creativity Works”.
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:24:15
  20. Others professed a genuine shock.
  21. trevor_cole
    It’s mind-boggling when writers achieve what so many dream of — a New Yorker or NYTimes gig — and then blow it:
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:24:33
  22. And where there’s a scandal… there’s humor, too! Especially with the “Bob Dylan factor.”
  23. RWhelanWSJ
    This is the best twitter feed to spring up in the wake of the Jonah Lehrer Bob Dylan fabrication scandal:
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:44:10
  24. MattMoskovciak
    “Once upon a time Jonah Lehrer dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t he?” – Bob Dylan
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:49:43
  25. TeeMcSee
    journalists’ loathing of Jonah Lehrer on behalf of Bob Dylan exceeded by Bob Dylan’s loathing of all journalists
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:45:30
  26. Then there’s the bottom line: Is the book still credible?
  27. jacremes
    Something’s wrong when Lehrer’s unacceptable sin is a fabricated quote not a badly argued, incorrect book.
    Mon, Jul 30 2012 11:45:46
  28. A former editor has similarly jumped to Lehrer’s defense — and has gotten mercilessly ridiculed as a result.
  29. Roxane Gay in Salon has pushed the issue to a much broader question by writing:

    “Why does a “young genius” risk everything by making up quotes? A better question is why we coddle young male genius.”

And the opinion-slinging continues. Lehrer hasn’t released another statement, nor taken to his Twitter account. Is more torment on his way, or is the worst over? One can only hope that Lehrer’s career will eventually recover. Instead of drowning in the details as if its a juicy celebrity scandal, perhaps we should take another perspective: What can the rest of us learn from all this, especially journalists?

It seems fitting to revisit Lehrer’s book How We Decide , where he ponders the nature of folly:

Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged. On the contrary, they should be cultivated and carefully investigated.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Standford, has spent decades demonstrating that one of the crucial ingredients of successful education is the ability to learn from mistakes.

. . . Unfortunately, children are often taught the exact opposite. Instead of praising kids for trying hard, teachers typically praise them for their innate intelligence. . . . This type of encouragement actually backfires, since it leads students to see mistakes as signs of stupidity and not as the building blocks of knowledge.

Written as part of UCLA Extension’s “New Media Reporting” course.


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