Sunday, December 17, 2017
Perspective

Why would he make it up?

Is last week's kerfuffle over Jonah Lehrer the latest sign of the coming apocalypse, the summer's biggest fiesta of schadenfreude or something else entirely?

Lehrer was, until last Monday, a wunderkind among popular science writers. He published his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, at age 26, and quickly followed that with How We Decide and, this spring, Imagine: How Creativity Works. All were bestsellers.

Lehrer wrote articles and blogged for Wired and other publications, and in June he landed a coveted gig as a staff writer for the New Yorker. Just 31, hipster handsome, in demand as a speaker, a former Rhodes scholar with a gift for writing gracefully and clearly about neuroscience and other scientific subjects for general audiences, he was a rising star in the Malcolm Gladwell mode.

Then along came Michael Moynihan. A reporter for online magazine Tablet and self-described Bob Dylan "obsessive," Moynihan eagerly read the first chapter of Imagine, which focuses on Dylan's creative process. (It draws on published interviews; Lehrer had never talked to Dylan himself.)

Moynihan came away puzzled by several direct quotes attributed to Dylan. Combing through documentaries and the music icon's infrequent interviews, he could find no sources for three of the quotes, found only parts of another three and determined one was taken out of context in a way that distorted its meaning.

According to Moynihan's article, when he contacted Lehrer, the author stalled, obfuscated and lied about having access to unseen film footage. Finally, after almost a month, he confessed that he had fabricated and misused quotes, panicked when Moynihan caught him and tried to cover it up.

Moynihan's story was published Monday. By Tuesday, Lehrer was no longer on the New Yorker staff. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of Imagine, withdrew the book (which had sold a reported 200,000 copies) in both print and digital forms. By Wednesday, Imagine had been scrubbed from Amazon, as if it had never existed, although Lehrer's other books are still available. The only trace of Imagine on Barnes & Noble's website was a few used copies for sale.

Articles and snarky columns about Lehrer multiplied across the Web, as did comments and tweets about appropriate Dylan titles (It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, ad infinitum — surprising how many vengeful Dylan songs there are).

Also, according to Forbes.com, Lehrer's Aug. 22 speech at Earlham College in Indiana — on ethics in decisionmaking — has been cancelled.

So why did Lehrer make the decision that has laid him low?

The quotes seem to have been fabricated or manipulated in order to strengthen his thesis about the nature of creativity, but they're so innocuous it's hard to see what difference they made. Here's a real Dylan quote about the inspiration for his songs: "I just write them. There's no great message." Lehrer's fabricated addition: "Stop asking me to explain." What do those five words add (everyone knows Dylan can be cranky), and why did he feel making them up was worth risking a soaring career?

Lehrer isn't talking, after releasing a statement confessing to and apologizing for the coverup. Even Moynihan said in an interview he was "baffled" by the whole thing.

Paradoxically, one factor might have been Lehrer's rapid rise to success. Pressure to perform — especially in a world with a voracious 24-hour media cycle that constantly demands the next blog post, tweet, article, even book — and to match his past performances could have played a part. Or perhaps that success made him overconfident — and sloppy.

As someone whose celebrity was born of new media, Lehrer might have been expected to know the Internet can both make and break reputations — it makes it easier than ever for critics, experts and avid fans to identify errors and debunk untruths (even as it enables their dispersal as well).

Various wags have cracked that the tipoff for Moynihan must have been Lehrer's ability to find coherent quotes from the notoriously cryptic Dylan, and there's irony in the fact that it was those quotes that tripped him up. Dylan himself has been dinged more than once for lifting musical, lyrical and artistic material from others — charges he ignores or shrugs off.

In an upcoming Rolling Stone interview about his new album, Tempest, Dylan says that its title track, a 14-minute epic about the Titanic, borrows from a Carter Family song about the disaster. In a quote (real as far as I know) in that interview, Dylan says, "People are going to say, 'Well, it's not very truthful.' But a songwriter doesn't care about what's truthful. What he cares about is what should've happened, what could've happened. That's its own kind of truth."

Lehrer, however, is a science writer, not a songwriter, and for him making up what Dylan should have said is not its own kind of truth.

Lehrer had already been publicly spanked in recent months for the odd offense of plagiarizing himself, after it was found that some of the entries in a blog he wrote for the New Yorker contained passages from stories he had published elsewhere. The New Yorker flagged the copied-and-pasted bits online but let him off lightly.

Even before that, there were warning signs about Imagine — the Dylan quotes are hardly the only portions of it that are problematical. In a May 11 review of the book in the New York Times, psychology professor Christopher Chabris raked it over the coals for errors small and large unrelated to Dylan. The small included passages that said the Apple I computer had 256 KB of memory (it had 4) and that incorrectly described what information EEG electrodes gather.

"This may sound like nitpicking," Chabris wrote. "But science writers, like teachers, have an obligation to get the facts right. When enough details are wrong, readers may lose confidence in the big picture."

More concerning, the reviewer wrote, was Lehrer's "failure to grasp some fundamental principles of scientific thinking" and his tendency to make theoretical leaps that the research he cited did not support.

And what was the public response to that smackdown of the Neuroscience Kid's understanding of neuroscience?

Cricket. Cricket. Cricket. (And the book spent several months on the bestseller lists.)

Put that all together and maybe Lehrer had reason to think he could get away with it. Some other recent cases of errors in high-profile nonfiction books might suggest that, too.

For example, Killing Lincoln, an account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and author Martin Dugard published in 2011, was rejected for sale in National Parks Service book stores, including the one at Ford's Theatre, because of numerous historical inaccuracies. Reviewers, such as Civil War historian Edward Steers Jr., noted such gaffes as a description of a meeting between President Lincoln and Gen. Grant in the Oval Office — which wasn't built until 1909.

Far from being scrubbed from book stores in disgrace, Killing Lincoln became one of the bestselling nonfiction books of 2011 and is in its 44th week on the New York Times bestseller list. (And O'Reilly still has his job.)

So what, exactly, is the line that is being drawn? That errors in science and history don't count as much as faking quotes from celebrities? That would have put the tabloids and gossip websites out of business long ago.

Perhaps the line is the difference between errors, even egregious ones, and deliberate fabrications.

Or are we expecting too much?

Every writer makes mistakes. If we are lucky, we catch them ourselves; often, they are caught by our editors or those saints to whom every journalist owes a major debt, copy editors. Writing for the New Yorker and Wired, Lehrer had the benefit of some of the publishing industry's most respected fact-checking teams.

But when writing his books, he did not. Many readers don't realize it, but major publishers do not routinely fact-check nonfiction books. It's a colossally time-consuming task to fact-check a full-length book — consider the weeks Moynihan put into tracking down just those few fabricated Dylan quotes — and in a time when publishing houses are cutting corners until they bleed, it's not a priority. Authors are expected to vouch for their own research.

Might an eagle-eyed, Dylan-obsessed fact checker have caught those quotes? Might Lehrer have become too reliant on other people cleaning up his work? Might his factual errors have been shrugged off by readers and reviewers if he hadn't added the insult of making stuff up?

Even the neuroscientists among us can't know what was going through Lehrer's mind when he made up those quotes. That is, until, like some other noted fabricators before him (James Frey of A Million Little Pieces infamy, for example, who now writes and publishes YA books), he does enough penance to return to his career, perhaps with an apologetic memoir.

In the meantime, there may be some clues in Lehrer's blog post from June 12, "Why Smart People Are Stupid." (It's one of those the New Yorker flagged for duplicated passages.) Lehrer writes about studies that show we tend to be harder on other people for mistakes in reasoning than we are on ourselves — and that superior intelligence does not mitigate that tendency.

"We readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people," he writes. "And here's the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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