Jonah Lehrer’s Journalistic Misdeeds at Wired.com
An investigation reveals evidence of plagiarism, dodgy quotes, and factual inaccuracies.
For the past three months, Jonah Lehrer, science journalist, author of three books, and (former) New Yorker staff writer has been under siege. In mid-June, he was accused of recycling his old work and publishing it as new. Since then, a number of accounts assert that Lehrer committed the two mortal sins of journalism: fabrication and plagiarism.
Before Lehrer joined The New Yorker, he was one of the premier bloggers at Wired.com; the site still boasts several hundred blog posts he wrote for his Frontal Cortex blog. Quite naturally, when the Lehrer scandal first broke, the editors at Wired.com worried that his work for them was tainted as well.
That's where I came in. I'm a journalism professor and science journalist, and though I've written for Wired once or twice (and I happen to know and like Wired's editor, Chris Anderson), I was a relatively neutral, outside party who could check Lehrer's blog for journalistic malfeasance. So Wired.com asked me to take a look.
My task was not to decide whether Lehrer got everything right—every journalist makes mistakes and misinterprets things—but to determine whether he recycled, fabricated, plagiarized, or otherwise breached journalistic ethics.
I soon came to the conclusion that he had.
Wired.com decided not to publish my full analysis of my findings, but given the importance and prominence of the Lehrer case, Slate stepped in to fill the gap. Evan Hansen*, Wired.com’s editor, declined an opportunity to comment. (Update, Aug. 31, 8:32 p.m.: Wired has issued a statement.) Lehrer was asked to comment on the record but has not replied.
I examined 18 out of several hundred postings; most were chosen by Wired.com editors as suspect, others were chosen by them randomly, and I selected a few additional blog posts to ensure that the sample wasn’t entirely under control of Wired.com editors. In this sample, all but one piece revealed evidence of some journalistic misdeed. Recycling was the norm (see the table of journalistic infractions, below). Sometimes Lehrer had reused sentences, paragraphs, or even multiple paragraphs. On occasion, a passage was recycled multiple times, appearing in several different pieces.
As just one example, "Are Emotions Prophetic," a blog post published in March about emotional versus rational thinking, borrowed language from two prior Lehrer publications: an article in ESPN the Magazine and a September 2011 blog post.
Lehrer has been recycling his material for years; he was doing it in 2008 and probably even earlier. It's amazing—and disturbing—that it took so long for anyone to notice.
Journalists disagree about whether it is acceptable to take passages and quotations from press releases without attribution. I'm on the less-tolerant end of the spectrum, so I looked for examples in Lehrer's work.
In the sample of posts I looked at, there were a number of places where it looked like Lehrer had taken text from a press release and placed it in his own blog after a light edit. For example, several paragraphs in "Are Emotions Prophetic," paralleled a Feb. 24, 2012, press release from the Columbia Business School.
For me, the most ethically fraught example of this practice was in "Does Inequality Make Us Unhappy." In that post, Lehrer wrote: "'We economists have a widespread view that most people are basically self-interested and won’t try to help other people,' Colin Camerer, a neuroeconomist at Caltech and co-author of the study, told me." However, the quotation had come from a Caltech press release, not from an interview with Camerer.
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.