Is There Plagiarism in Jonah Lehrer’s New Book Proposal?

Slate's Culture Blog
June 7 2013 11:37 AM

Is There Plagiarism in Jonah Lehrer’s New Book Proposal?

Jonah Lehrer
Jonah Lehrer

Nina Subin

Yesterday, I reported that disgraced science journalist Jonah Lehrer had sold his new book on the power of love to Simon & Schuster. In a follow-up story last night, the New York Times quoted the book’s new editor, Ben Loehnen, about the project: “The wisdom and the skill on the page are apparent, and all too rare,” he said. I’ve now had a chance to read the 62-page proposal and chapter outline, pebbled with 102 citations and discursive footnotes, for myself.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

So what’s in Jonah Lehrer’s Book of Love? More of the same, in every way you can imagine. It’s a self-help book disguised as a science book that’s dismissive of self-help books. “I will never forget the taste of disgrace in my mouth, the dryness and bitterness coating the tongue,” Lehrer writes in his introduction, but he manages to forget that neural signal in all the text that follows. It’s as if he’s washed his mouth with bromides.

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The new project offers guidance for the smart set on the bedrock matters of popular psychology: mating, dating, and relating. Each chapter begins with an anecdote of love, often taken from the life of a cultural icon—Montaigne, Berlioz, Tolstoy, etc.—and then progresses in an onslaught of social-science data, cherry-picked to make a simple point that’s been dressed up to look like counter-intuition. That is to say, it’s Lehrer doing exactly what he’s done before. He loves to start with straw-man science, using published research to establish some flagrant bit of nonsense—"marriage is a waste of time,” let’s say—so he can batter and abuse it with other, better published research. (“And yet,” he explains, “a number of subsequent studies have revealed a surprising upside to marriage.”)

Our sex lives are subjected to a similar parade of cheap epiphanies that lead back to where we started. “Although people typically assume that there is a trade-off between emotional intimacy and happiness in bed,” Lehrer writes, “research suggests that the opposite is true. Good sex is not just about the sex. It is about sharing everything with someone else.” (Naturally, this revelation has a footnote, citing unpublished work by author and sex therapist Bernie Zilbergeld.) Same goes for child-rearing: Science may have told us that babies don’t need affection, that they’re better off without a mother’s love. It’s “one of the recurring themes of modern culture,” Lehrer says, “that we are fundamentally alone.” But you’ll be intrigued to know that other, better science shows the opposite. “In the right sort of world, the ability to love is the very first thing we learn,” Lehrer says. “It is also the most important.”

The proposal confirms Lehrer’s status as a master craftsman, one who can decorate a commonplace with enormous skill and erudition. Most impressive is the way he maneuvers around the empty-headed mode that he helped create: “It’s not enough to simply describe the hormones of Romeo, or the fMRI results of Juliet,” he says, as if embarking on a soliloquy about his early work. “While the latest science describes love as a side-effect of pleasure, just an overflow of some chemical in the reward parts of the brain, that assumption is profoundly flawed.”

Lehrer 2.0 won’t accept these dopey, brain-based explanations. He’s loaded up his hard drive with a different set of data. “True love remains ineffable,” he says. But not that ineffable: We just need surveys instead of scanners, and psychology in place of brain anatomy.

Yet at its heart, the Lehrer method remains a copy of the same. He’ll drop a classic work of art into his truism machine, and watch it spit out packaged tidbits of self-help. “Consider Romeo and Juliet, the most influential love story of all time,” he says, and then proceeds to warn against the “Romeo model” of attachment. (In keeping with its genre, the new book promises a fresh set of pop-psych catchphrases: Along with the “Romeo model,” we’re treated to the “Abraham principle” and the “Zeigarnik effect.”)

In fact, Lehrer is so devoted to his early work, both in style and content, that he’s dredged up some old ideas. Earlier this week I joked that this new project was a function of his grit, a term devised by psychologist Angela Duckworth to describe a person’s “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Lehrer has often touted Duckworth’s work, and written (again and again and again) that “grit is what allows you to show up again and again and again.” Now he plans to profile Duckworth for Chapter 7, so as to show how this all-important quality relates to love. The proposal ends with Lehrer’s “gritty model of love,” which tells us that “what [love] requires above all is simply this: showing up. Not giving up. Going on.”

That’s the through-line of his book, and—as I unwittingly predicted Tuesday—the blueprint for his comeback. Through repetition he will find redemption. Lehrer’s been on this track since the very moment of his shaming, all the way back in the summer of 2012. “I listen to the message,” he writes of his outing as a fraud. “I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry.”

There are moments in the proposal where that scent of vomit lingers, places where Lehrer’s language seems caught in a cycle of reappropriation and re-use. A chapter on the secret to having a happy marriage, for example, comes close to copying a recent essay on the same subject by Adam Gopnik, Lehrer’s one-time colleague at The New Yorker. Gopnik wrote:

In 1838, when Darwin was first thinking of marriage, he made an irresistible series of notes on the subject—a scientific-seeming list of marriage pros and cons. … In favor of marriage, he included the acquisition of a “constant companion and friend in old age” and, memorably and conclusively, decided that a wife would be “better than a dog, anyhow.”

Here’s Lehrer’s version, from the proposal:

In July 1838, Charles Darwin considered the possibility of marriage in his scientific notebook. His thoughts quickly took the shape of a list, a balance sheet of reasons to “marry” and “not marry.” The pros of wedlock were straightforward: Darwin cited the possibility of children (“if it please God”), the health benefits of attachment and the pleasure of having a “constant companion (& friend in old age).” A wife, he wrote, was probably “better than a dog anyhow.”

Gopnik, again:

And the Darwins went on to have something close to an ideal marriage.

And Lehrer:

This might seem like an inauspicious start to a relationship, but the Darwins’ went on to have a nearly ideal marriage.

Gopnik:

The Darwins had lust, certainly—10 children in 17 years suggests as much anyway—and they had laughter. Emma loved to tease Charles about his passion, already evident in youth, for obsessive theorising. … And loyalty? Well, despite Emma’s Christian faith, she stood by him through all the evolutionary wars.

Lehrer:

There were ten children in seventeen years; volumes of affectionate letters, full of teasing and warmth; and, perhaps most importantly, a deep and abiding loyalty, which helped the couple cope with their grief over a dead child and their disagreements over God.

Gopnik:

As he lay dying in 1882, the distinguished scientist, who had irrevocably altered the consciousness of the world, and knew it, said simply: “My love, my precious love.”

Lehrer:

In 1882, as Darwin lay dying, he called out to Emma. Although the scientist had redefined the history of life, his last meaningful words stated the simplest of truths. “My love, my precious love,” Charles whispered to his wife.

I don’t know if Lehrer really plagiarized the Gopnik essay, or if he modified his words to stop just short of doing so; it might be that both drew inspiration from a common source. (In the footnotes, Lehrer cites Page 661 of Desmond and Moore’s 1991 biography of Darwin. Anyone who has a copy of that book is invited to check the wordings.) Either way I’m convinced that Lehrer hasn’t changed his ways at all. He’s set his course as clearly as can be: He’ll recycle and repeat, he’ll puke his gritty guts out.

“Here is the simple thesis of this book,” the proposal says: “Love is the only happiness that lasts. It is the opposite of underwear. It is the antithesis of chocolate cake.” That’s a callback to a speech that Lehrer gave at Earlham College in 2011, or perhaps he's only grabbed a phrase from his bottomless recycling bin. “If your goals ever feel tedious, if you find them as unnecessary as that last bite of chocolate cake, then you’re never going to put in the necessary work,” he told the undergrads back then. “Grit requires love. Grit is just another name for what never gets old. Love is the opposite of underwear.”

Having read through this proposal, I’ll propose a different lesson: If your underwear is full of grit, it might be time to change.

Update, 1:10 p.m.: The relevant passage cited in Lehrer’s footnote can be found online. Here’s the full deathbed quote: “My love, my precious love. Tell all my children to remember how good they have always been to me.” It looks like Gopnik and Lehrer both abbreviated the quote to make it seem like spousal love was more important than filial devotion.

Update, 2:55 p.m.: A sharp-eyed reader notes that this may not be the first time Lehrer plagiarized writing by a member of the Gopnik family, pointing out several similar passages in a 2011 Wired post by Lehrer and a post on the Slate blog the XX Factor, written six months earlier by Adam’s sister, the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik.

It’s worth noting that Lehrer has never acknowledged this or many of his other instances of plagiarism—and has explicitly asked that readers and critics scrutinize his work. “I need the help of others,” he said in his $20,000 apology. “I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong, if only so that I can show myself I’m able to listen.”

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