Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jonah Lehrer's Downfall and the Boy Who Cried Wolf


How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
 In folklore, a boy cries "Wolf" and loses all credibility. No one believes him the next time he cries "Wolf"  which leads inexorably to him be eaten up.

The boy who cried wolf is a fitting analogy for Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide, and Imagine.

Best-selling author and wunderkind journalist has been called out for self-plagiarizing: that is duplicating material and submitting it to two competing news agencies. Five of Lehrer's New Yorker posts now come with editorial notes regretting "duplication" of material published earlier. Unfortunately for Lehrer, the postings are not a re-spin or an update but an almost verbatim duplication of earlier material.

Lehrer's book Imagine is even more problematic as it contains undocumented quotations and, as it turns out, completely fabricated quotations ascribed to the singer Bob Dylan.

Publisher, Harcourt-Mifflin, has pulled Imagine largely because of the fabricated Dylan quotations.

In How We Decide, an earlier work, Lehrer quotes quarterback, Tom Brady; Plato; Thomas Jefferson; Sigmund Freud; Francisco Goya; MIT professor, Marvin Minsky; neurologist, Antonio Damasio; David Hume; Days of Our Lives director, Herb Stein; NYU neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux; American philosopher, William James, and many others.

Naturally, any reader would now want to know if any of these quotations were fabricated. Lehrer's publisher Harcourt-Mifflin is reportedly reviewing all of  his books.
As it turns out, Lehrer has fabricated more than just the Dylan quotations. Kevin Breen in The Skeptical Libertarian exposes yet another falsehood.

In Imagine Lehrer describes Teller of the magic duo, Penn and Teller, as ready to quit magic in the early eighties. He quotes Teller as saying, "I was ready to go back home and become a high-school Latin teacher."

Breen of The Skeptical Libertarian tracks Teller down in Las Vegas who purports he never gave Lehrer the quote abou being ready to give up.

The false Teller quote is actually worst than the fabricated Dylan quotations. The Dylan quotations, while false, are not completely out of character with the man.

If you create something that is utterly false (a Wolf), inevitably you will lose credibility. It remains to be seen whether Lehrer's reputation or personal brand will survive but the odds are against him--as they should be.