Almost Every Jonah Lehrer Piece I Examined Showed Journalistic Misdeeds

The state of the universe.
Aug. 31 2012 7:14 PM

Jonah Lehrer’s Journalistic Misdeeds at Wired.com

An investigation reveals evidence of plagiarism, dodgy quotes, and factual inaccuracies.

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In early August, Seth Mnookin of MIT pointed out a much clearer example of an improper quotation. In "The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories," published in August 2010 (and republished in "Cognitive Dissonance" in January 2011), Lehrer told the story of a cult that believed that there would be a world-changing cataclysmic flood on Dec. 21, 1954. The leader of the cult received psychic "telegrams" from an alien presence, and Lehrer quoted what was supposedly part of the text from one of those missives. However, as Mnookin showed, the quotation was actually a pastiche—part of the passage was from an alien message, but part was a passage from Leon Festinger's When Prophecy Fails, the main eyewitness account of the cult's rise and fall.

Issues with Facts

Mnookin pointed out other details that Lehrer gets wrong. For instance, in his Aug. 4, 2010, post, "The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories," Lehrer wrote that the cultists believed that a cataclysmic flood would come soon after midnight. In fact, the flood was to begin at dawn. That error, by itself, would be of little consequence, but when Mnookin pointed out the error, Lehrer did not make a correction. What's more, Lehrer republished the exact same erroneous information in "Cognitive Dissonance," published some five months later.

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Psychologist Daniel Bor levels a very similar accusation. In 2009, Bor pointed out a piddling little error in a story that Lehrer had written for Nature—Lehrer claimed that a person had memorized the entire “Divine Comedy” after a quick read-through; in fact, the man had memorized only a few stanzas. Lehrer not only didn't correct the mistake, but republished it not once but twice in his Wired.com blog.

After resigning from The New Yorker, Lehrer issued an 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.”

In my opinion, journalistic ethics are based upon trust; an ethical lapse is, at core, a breach of that trust. The severity of the sin depends on the severity of that breach and whose trust has been broken.

There isn't a canonical code of conduct for journalists; perfectly reasonable reporters and editors can have fundamental disagreements about what appear to be basic ethical questions, such as whether it's kosher to recycle one's own work.

It's generally expected that freelancers will try to resell stories—in the United States, freelance contracts often grant publishers "first North American serial rights," with the explicit expectation that the writer will try to rework and repackage the piece for another publication. However, recycling may violate the reader's trust. There's an implicit assumption that a journalist's work is somehow novel—that he adds something to the discussion through reportage or by synthesizing a new argument. But the nature of that assumption depends not just on how much material is recycled, but where and how it gets reused. There's a continuum, as science writer Carl Zimmer explains; under certain circumstances, it can be perfectly fine, while in others, it can be shady or outright wrong.

In Lehrer's case, the extensive reuse of old material, coupled with his reliance on the appearance of novelty in his blog posts lead me to conclude that Lehrer crossed an ethical line with his recycling. Nevertheless, in my opinion, full disclosure, suitable penance, and a promise to sin no more would have been the appropriate response. Unfortunately for Lehrer, recycling was not the end of the story.

To be fair to Lehrer, even as rigid an ethical rule as "no plagiarism" has shades of gray. I break with many of my colleagues when I say that it is unethical for a journalist to take unattributed text or quotations from a press release. Press releases, after all, are meant to be copied. Press officers are thrilled when reporters copy their prose—what better way for an institution to control a message than by putting words directly in a journalist's mouth? But, in my view, this argument misses the real reason plagiarism is wrong.

Unlike recycling, plagiarism and fabrication are fundamental betrayals of the reader's trust. With plagiarism, an author tries to convince his audience that he has become conversant in a subject through journalistic research, processed that research, and distilled it by turning it into words on paper. Instead, a plagiarist merely takes someone's thoughts or words and presents them as his own. With fabrication, an author tries to convince his audience of something that isn't true, of an event that never happened, or a quote that was never uttered. Fabrication, like plagiarism, betrays the reader—and betraying the reader is the cardinal sin in journalism.

I interviewed Lehrer for an hour and a half to get his reaction, but I am unable to publish his comments. Unfortunately, in the setup to the interview, Wired.com, which set the ground rules for the interview, didn't make sufficiently clear that the discussion was not solely part of an internal investigation and that it could be made public. As a result, I can't quote Lehrer or even paraphrase what he told me. But what I can say is that a number of his responses to my questions made me suspect that Lehrer's journalistic moral compass is badly broken.

In short, I am convinced that Lehrer has a cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood. This shows not only in his attitude toward quotations but in some of the other details of his writing. And a journalist who repeatedly fails to correct errors when they're pointed out is, in my opinion, exhibiting reckless disregard for the truth.

It is thus my opinion that Lehrer plagiarized others' work, published inaccurate quotations, printed narrative details that were factually incorrect, and failed to address errors when they were pointed out.

Lehrer's transgressions are inexcusable—but I can't help but think that the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure. I'm 10 years older than Lehrer, and unlike him, my contemporaries and I had all of our work scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published. When we screwed up, there was likely someone to catch it and save us (public) embarrassment. And if someone violated journalistic ethics, it was more likely to be caught early in his career—allowing him the chance either to reform and recover or to slink off to another career without being humiliated on the national stage. No such luck for Lehrer; he rose to the very top in a flash, and despite having his work published by major media companies, he was    operating, most of the time, without a safety net. Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.

*Correction, Aug. 31, 2012: This article originally misstated the name of Wired.com's editor, Evan Hansen.

Charles Seife is a journalism professor at New York University. His most recent books are Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking and Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception