The Fall of Jonah Lehrer (Part 1 of 4)

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How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O [Jonah], thou wast slain in thine high places. 
2 Samuel 1:25 (King James, adapted)*

This summer, the meteoric career of pop-science wunderkind, bestselling author, and recently-appointed New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer reached its Icarian zenith–and abruptly ended. In my next few posts, I'll speculate about what went down, starting today with an outline of events and a glimpse ahead.

Though the details are now well-known, here's a brief summary of what happened when:

First came the charges of self-plagiarism. On 19 June, Jim Romanesco called Lehrer out for recycling his own material for his first few blogposts at the New Yorker. Other outlets hopped on the story, and—with the help of Google—instances of self-plagiarism piled up, including numerous examples from his new book, Imagine. Still, it looked David Remnick and others were willing to forgive him.

Soon, though, the "self-" was dropped. It seemed like Lehrer had done more than borrow his own stuff, and had instead been pilfering here and there from other folks—including Malcolm Gladwell, with whom Lehrer had frequently been compared and for whom, derisively but also grudgingly, he was taken to be the heir apparent. Though Lehrer (and Gladwell) denied it, this was more serious stuff.

Then, as they say, the shit hit the (Dylan) fan: on 30 July, Tablet magazine revealed that Lehrer had actually fabricated quotations for Imagine, and from an unlikely source: Bob Dylan. Unlikely, according to the journalist (and self-described "Dylan obsessive") who exposed him, because Dylan's fans "treat his every utterance as worthy of deconstruction and analysis."
From self-plagiarism, to plagiarism, to fabrication.

All this from a young man who wrote a widely-read New Yorker piece on science's replication problem—"The Decline Effect"—and, more recently, had published a book with the subtitle "How Creativity Works." The irony runs deep.

So, too, does the schadenfreude. Bloggers, science writers, and aspiring journalists the world over were captivated by (and participated in) the downfall of one of their youngest and most successful colleagues. Speculation about why someone in such a powerful position would commit such (easily detectible) sins began almost immediately.

With some distance from the main events of this summer, guesses have turned into theories (as they're wont to do, I guess). For example, New York just ran a long (and somewhat spiteful) review of the proceedings that embeds Lehrer's story in "the house that Gladwell built" over at the New Yorker.**
The whole episode reminded me of one of Lee's early posts, called "Radiolab: Pop Science, Common Sense." There, Lee sees Radiolab as cashing in on "a dominant middle-brow trope of the day: the appeal of the counter-intuitive." Though Lehrer isn't mentioned, Gladwell and the authors of Freakonomics are—and Lee takes them to task for trafficking in easy explanations for complex problems.

It's a critique Gladwell's been hearing since The Tipping Point, and one that's sharpened since Lehrer's downfall. It encapsulates not only the evolutionary psychology and neuro-everything that's so popular today, but also the wider world of TED Talks and even the New Yorker, with (as Ben Schmidt has put it) its standard "practice of flattering its readers into thinking they're overcoming the conventional wisdom several times a page."

In the next three posts, I'll explore a few of the interesting aspects of science, journalism, and science-journalism that have emerged from all this, including Lehrer's own work on the scientific method and its discontents, the general popularity (and problems with) psychological explanations à la Gladwell and Steven Pinker, and the methods (and assumptions) of journalism in an age of "big ideas."
*I can't tell you how many posts on the Lehrer flap include the line "How the mighty have fallen!"—it's a lot. Yet more evidence of the double-edged-ness of the Google sword in the journalist's (blogger's) sheath.
**That's my phrase!

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