Jonah Lehrer tries to rehabilitate himself by giving a $20,000 speech

 

UPDATE: As reader Derek notes in the comments below, the Knight Foundation has issued an apology for paying Lehrer any fee at all—much less $20,000.  Their apology includes this:

In retrospect, as a foundation that has long stood for quality journalism, paying a speaker’s fee was inappropriate. Controversial speakers should have platforms, but Knight Foundation should not have put itself into a position tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism. We regret our mistake. . .

When asked, we released the amount of the speaker’s fee. The fee was not unusual for a well-known author to address a large conference. But it was simply not something Knight Foundation, given our values, should have paid. We continue to support journalism excellence in the digital age. And we do not want our foundation partners to think that journalism controversies are too hot for them to handle. Instead, we want to send the message that when things go wrong the best action is to admit the error and get back to work.

But of course Lehrer is still $20,000 richer.  In some states criminals aren’t allowed to profit from their crime by, say, writing a book about it. It seems that stricture doesn’t apply to journalism.

_________

I was never a fan of science writer Jonah Lehrer since he published a pretty dreadful piece on E. O. Wilson and his theory of group selection (discussed on this site) in the New Yorker. Subsequently, as most of you know, Lehrer was caught out fabricating quotes for a book; Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker and the book was withdrawn.

It wasn’t just the book, either; as Charles Seife reports in Slate, Lehrer’s journalistic misdeeds extended to his own blog, which contained not only plagiarisms from press releases but factual errors (uncorrected even after being pointed out) and other fabricated quotes. One example of the plagiarism is Lehrer’s lifting, in post on his own website from September 28, 2011, which, according to Seife, “closely parallels a blog post written by Christian Jarrett a few months prior.”

Lehrer:

Sixty kids were shown a boxy toy that played music when beads were placed on it. Half of the children saw a version of the toy in which the toy was only activated after four beads were exactingly placed, one at a time, on the top of the toy. This was the “unambiguous condition,” since it implied every bead is equally capable of activating the device. However, other children were randomly assigned to an “ambiguous condition,” in which only two of the four beads activated the toy. (The other two beads did nothing.) In both conditions, the researchers ended their demo with a question: “Wow, look at that. I wonder what makes the machine go?”

Next came the exploratory phase of the study. The children were given two pairs of new beads. One of the pairs was fixed together permanently. The other pair could be snapped apart. They had one minute to play.

Here’s where the ambiguity made all the difference. Children who’d seen that all beads activate the toy were far less likely to bother snapping apart the snappable bead pair. As a result, they were unable to figure out which beads activated the toy. (In fact, just one out of twenty children in that condition bothered performing the so-called “experiment”.) By contrast, nearly fifty percent of children in the ambiguous condition snapped apart the beads and attempted to learn which specific beads were capable of activating the toy. The uncertainty inspired their empiricism.

A second study was similar to the first, but this time the children were only given a single bead pair that was permanently fixed. This toy was trickier to activate, since it required that the kids place the pair of beads so that one bead was one top and one bead was dangling over the edge. Once again, children first presented with ambiguous evidence were five times more likely to perform this original “experiment” and thus activate the toy.

Jarrett:

Sixty 4- and 5-year-olds were shown a box-shaped toy that played music and lit up when beads were placed on it. Crucially, some of the children were shown that each of four beads, placed one at a time on the toy, activated it. This was the “unambiguous condition” that implied any old bead is capable of activating the toy. Other children were in an “ambiguous condition”: they were shown, by placing beads one at a time on the box, that two of the beads activated it, but two of them didn’t. In both conditions, the researchers said afterwards: “Wow, look at that. I wonder what makes the machine go?”, followed by: “Go ahead and play”.

Next came the key exploratory phase of the study. The children were given two pairs of new beads (different from those seen earlier). One pair was fixed together permanently. The other pair could be snapped apart. They had one minute to play.

Here’s the take-home finding: children who’d earlier seen that all beads activate the toy were far less likely to bother snapping apart the snappable bead pair to test which beads activated the toy and which didn’t. In fact just 1 out of 20 children in that condition bothered performing this “experiment”. By contrast, 19 out of 40 children in the ambiguous condition snapped apart the snappable bead pair and tested which specific beads were capable of activating the toy and which weren’t.

A second study was similar to the first, but this time the children were only given a single bead pair that was permanently fixed. This time, to identify precisely which beads activated the toy and which didn’t, the children had to come up with the entirely original idea of placing the pair on the toy in such a way that one bead made contact with its surface whilst the other bead hung over the edge. Again, children presented initially with ambiguous evidence (some beads activated the toy, some didn’t) were far more likely to perform this original “experiment” to isolate the beads with the activating effect …

Now, like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, Lehrer has decided that the days of humiliation are over, and he’s trying to regain his former status as the science-journalist Wunderkind:

A piece in Forbes by Jeff Bercovici, “Jonah Lehrer thinks he can humblebrag his way back into journalism.

Can you outsource integrity? Jonah Lehrer thinks so. In fact, that’s his plan for reviving his career as a big-idea science journalist.

At a seminar hosted by the Knight Foundation on Tuesday afternoon, the formerly high-flying author and speaker gave his first public accounting of the fabrication and plagiarism that led to his being dismissed from The New Yorker and disowned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher of his book “Imagine.”

In a speech and Q&A for which he was reportedly paid $20,000, Lehrer blamed his many deceptions, large and small, on “arrogance,” “a consistent asymmetry in the way I noticed error” and “carelessness matched with an ability to explain my carelessness away.”

Admitting that he’s trying to get himself back into science journalism, Lehrer presented his Grand Plan:

How, then, does he propose to bridge the rather large credibility gap he faces? By the methods of the technocrat, not the ethicist: “What I clearly need is a new set of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures,” he said. “If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be fully fact-checked and footnoted. Every conversation will be fully taped and transcribed.”

“That is how, one day, I’ll restore a measure of the trust I’ve lost,” he added.

Lehrer used several analogies to make his case. At one point, he likened himself to the FBI, which adopted new failsafes after a case involving fingerprint misidentification revealed systemic problems. He compared his new “standard operating procedures” — a phrase he must have used at least 10 times — to the “forcing functions” that software designers employ to guide users away from accidents.

The author of the Forbes piece, Jeff Bercovici, is rightly scornful of Lehrer’s plan, arguing that a real journalist strives to get it right, not to abide by a set of rules that prevents one from transgressing.

Lehrer’s speech—and shame on the Knight Foundation for paying him $20,000!—was bizarre in other ways.  In addition to his lack of remorse, Lehrer blamed his downfall on, well, his intelligence:

The oddness of Lehrer’s thinking came into focus when he allowed himself to consider some of the factors that may have eased his way down the path of iniquity. One, he said, is his high intelligence. “For some cognitive biases, being smart, having a high IQ, can make you more vulnerable to them,” he said.

Another is just how in demand he was as a writer, speaker and all-around public intellectual. Why consider yesterday’s mistakes, he suggested, when you can contemplate tomorrow’s $20,000 speech?  ”For me, the busyness was a way to avoid the reckoning,” he said.

Bercovici is rightly incensed:

Lehrer’s intention in submitting himself to a public grilling was to show the world that he’s ready to return to journalism, that we can trust him because he knows now not to trust himself. All he proved is that he’s not wired like the rest of us. If he can figure out why that is, that would be a neuroscience story worth publishing.

When I was interviewed by Lehrer for his New Yorker story on E. O. Wilson, and saw the result, I sensed something amiss.  There was such a disconnect between the science I taught him and what came out on the page that I suspected Lehrer was more interested in making a big splash than in the scientific truth.  And, sure enough, truth has always taken a back seat to Lehrer’s self-promotion and desire to make a big splash at a young age.

In truth, and given the content of this speech, I sense that Lehrer is a bit of a sociopath.  Yes, shows of contrition are often phony, meant to convince a gullible public (as in Lance Armstrong’s case) that they’re good to go again. But Lehrer can’t even be bothered to fake an apology that sounds meaningful.  Call me uncharitable, but if I were a magazine editor, I’d never hire him; and we shouldn’t trust anything by him that’s not fact-checked by a legion of factotums. This is what happens when careerism trumps truth.

And he got $20.000 for his fake apology. . .

28 Comments

  1. Posted February 18, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I don’t have an apology to make but I would do with chums. How do I get a speaking engagement which pays that well?

  2. caitlinburke
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    What’s striking to me about his “new rules” is that they are not new. They are standard rules for publishing and for ensuring fidelity to interviewed sources. Technology and circumstance don’t always allow for perfect recording and record-keeping, but I’ve spent the last near-20 years in publishing, and I’m startled to see someone acting as if this is a novel approach.

    He really does sound a bit as if he is struggling to convince himself of the aspects of integrity that he should have been aware of all along.

  3. gbjames
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m not smart enough to get $20,000 for a speech like that.

  4. Derek
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    In fairness to the Knight Foundation, they did realize that they blew it, and said so – http://www.knightfoundation.org/blogs/knightblog/2013/2/13/knight-foundation-regrets-paying-lehrer-speaking-fee/.

  5. Posted February 18, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    “… We regret our mistake. …. We did not tell him what to say, but knew he would include an exploration of his own self-destructive decision-making, and thought that might make his talk even more poignant. … But it was simply not something Knight Foundation, given our values, should have paid. …”

    Oh you can’t help but feel sorry for them, can you?

    Now I have just made a true statement.

    Ergo:

    Can I haz me 20.000 things now to invest into something worth ze while?

  6. Scote
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    He might be a scociopath, but don’t try to judge that based on whether the apology sound sincere. Sociopaths have no qualms about giving ” sincere” apologies, and they have the true lack of remorse that allows them to fake remorse without guilt.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    As I remember it I didn’t read Lehrer because he wrote so much which would have taken too much time to check. I guess I should have been more suspicious.

    Here I assume Lehrer has only made one high fee presentation so far. In that case it was arranged before his downfall if I understand correctly, but the Knight Foundation should have reconsidered.

    This isn’t my take, maybe it was Bercovici’s I read, but: Lehrer isn’t realizing he doesn’t need _new_ rules, his problem was not following the one’s already in place. So his not-pology is non-functional.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      No, I must be constructing this memory or perhaps be thinking poorly. More precisely I was dissatisfied because the texts were too lengthy, perhaps too many, and too nebulous as I saw it (but I don’t know much neuroscience).

  8. Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    There was such a disconnect between the science I taught him and what came out on the page that I suspected Lehrer was more interested in making a big splash than in the scientific truth.

    Isn’t that kind of normal for all of science journalism? I mean, that and not actually understanding what they report about in even the less splashy cases?

    More seriously, I think people should be allowed to rehabilitate themselves, as with all other crimes. Otherwise what does somebody do who has been caught plagiarizing or cheating in their line of work, twiddle their thumbs and starve for the next 30 years?

    (Seriously, what does a scientist do who is found cheating if their career in science is over because of that? At least in Germany, they will probably not find a job in cleaning or retail either because they will be “over-qualified”.)

    Of course, it has to be genuine. It has to be plausible that they actually learned their lesson. And it does not sound as if that is the case here…

    • Marta
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      “Otherwise what does somebody do who has been caught plagiarizing or cheating in their line of work, twiddle their thumbs and starve for the next 30 years?”

      If it were a just world, yep. It’s been years since I studied journalism, but the importance of integrity and credibility of writing was absolutely pounded into my head. I had zero doubt that the consequences for cheating and lying as a journalist were permanent unemployment in the occupation. Did Lehrer learn something else, or did he just consider himself exempt from the ethics of journalism?

      Unfortunately, experience shows that Lehrer will be re-admitted into journalism (although I doubt he’ll ever be considered credible.)

      It took Doris Kearns Goodwin a decade to recover from her own plagiarism debacle–very few people remember it now. And although I respect her scholarship for the most part, I think that getting caught cheating should have finished her as a scholar and a writer.

      • Posted February 18, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        I understand the sentiment, and I would also be highly doubtful towards a colleague who was once caught manufacturing data, but is it not more civilized to allow people to reform themselves?

        • gbjames
          Posted February 18, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          Sure. They should reform themselves. First step: recognize what the problem really is. That doesn’t seem to have happened here.

          • Posted February 18, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

            We rely on journalists to tell us the truth. Once one has proven that he doesn’t always tell the truth or at least hasn’t always told the truth, the only way for him to be rehabilitated is for his readers to believe what he writes. Until that happens, who will give him a job as a journalist or buy his freelance writings? What reason has he given his readers for believing him? Why should the New Yorker, or any other magazine, risk its reputation for him? He owes the New Yorker and his readers an apology and he ought to give back the money he was paid; they owe him nothing. He may have to do some other work just like others who have disgraced themselves in their chosen field. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. The world doesn’t owe anybody a living and liars should get what they deserve. Why is it more civilized to expose unknowing readers to possible lies at the expense of your own magazine’s reputation in order to help a proven liar rehab his reputation? The magazine is indebted to its readers, not to a writer who cared so little about the New Yorker’s reputation. Without their readers’ trust, just like Mr. Lehrer, they have nobody to read what they publish.
            He was willing to accept the rewards he ‘earned’ by cheating, he has to accept the penalties for getting caught.

          • Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

            First step: recognize what the problem really is. That doesn’t seem to have happened here.

            Yes, I wrote that too.

  9. Marella
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    The question is, can the leopard change his spots? Lehrer didn’t have a breakdown after many years of exemplary performance, he had an ongoing disregard for his audience and the truth which was finally found out. A breakdown due to stress can be forgiven, but casual contempt for his readers in a bid to make more money with less effort; not so sure about this one. I think he’s just an opportunist who should be given a wide berth.

    • Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      No, the real question is, how big is the population of journalists, and are honest and reliable ones available? He should just retire from journalism, and sell car insurance, or study accounting and get an accounting department job.

      It’s not as if there are only fifty journalists in the world, so he should be allowed back in.

      “Had your chance…..muffed it!” (lifted from Disney’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”.

      • Marella
        Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:56 am | Permalink

        This is true.

  10. DrBrydon
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    …“a consistent asymmetry in the way I noticed error”….

    I think he could probably make a fine living writing non-apologies for politicians, celebrities, and churchmen. Or maybe he should just become a theologian.

    • gillt
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      yeah that line struct me as trying too hard to signal his high IQ and coming off as way too impersonal for an apologetic speech.

  11. gillt
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    JAC:

    In truth, and given the content of this speech, I sense that Lehrer is a bit of a sociopath.

    I guess it’s too bad that the psychological sciences are held is such low regard that even other scientists don’t take their methods seriously and help themselves to their terminology in casual conversation.

    Maybe we should dissect Lehrer’s brain and look for accumulation of sociopath plaques.

    • Marta
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Well, okay, whatever, but this:

      Lehrer blamed his many deceptions, large and small, on “arrogance,”[I can get away with this because I'm so smart, no one will notice] “a consistent asymmetry in the way I noticed error” [The gap between what I write and the truth is not important] and “carelessness matched with an ability to explain my carelessness away.” [If I'd been just a little more careful, you dummies wouldn't have caught me]

      is the apology of a person who is sorry as hell he got caught, not so sorry for actually cheating and lying.

      Sounds sociopathic to me, too.

    • pulseteresa
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      gilt – I agree that far too many people use psychiatric/psychology terminology far to frequently and casually, including Jerry in this case (although Jerry did not say that he definitely is a sociopath, but that he “sense[es] that Lehrer is a bit of a sociopath).” Additionally, sociopathy is not an actual psychiatric diagnosis.

      Marta – As noted above, sociopathy is not a psychiatric diagnosis. However, the genuine psychiatric diagnosis Antisocial Personality Disorder comes very close to what most people mean when they use the terms sociopath or psychopath. Lehrer meets neither the
      DSM-IV-TR (U.S. diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders) nor the ICD-10 (The World Health Organization’s diagnostic manual for all diseases) criteria. He meets one, possibly two, of the three necessary criteria for diagnosis, but making such a diagnosis based on a speech, his writings, and articles written about him on this one particular topic without looking into his life more deeply – getting a life history as best as possible (from Lehrer, his family (of birth and current), friends (especially long term friends), and co-workers and employers), a lengthy interview with a psychiatrist and multiple sessions with a psychologist – would be very irresponsible and likely very inaccurate as well. Psychiatric diagnosis via internet is just silly and pointless.

      The best I can say about Jerry’s comment about sociopathy is that he at least wasn’t attempting such a diagnosis and properly qualified it with “a bit.”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissocial_personality_disorder#ICD-10

      • Posted February 19, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

        Mr. Lehrer does, however, meet full criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

        At the end of the day, he’s hittin’ home runs in the Cluster B ballpark.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Better that anything Lehrer should publish henceforth be checked by a team of skilled fact-checkers, than a “legion of factotums.” Factotums don’t have any special skill in checking facts; in fact, they don’t have any special skills at all — by definition (though the phrase did add a nice ring to the penultimate sentence of your penultimate paragraph.)

  13. g
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    The man has been a complete fraud since day 1. And he continues to be.

  14. madscientist
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    Maybe he took Tom Lehrer’s joke as career advice: “… the secret to success in Mathematics: plagiarize! Only, please, to call it ‘research’.”

  15. alttaawiil
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    dude sounds like a classic malignant narcissist.

    “i’m just really better than everyone else, therefore the rules don’t apply to me.”

  16. Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    The man clearly needs lessons in science, for goodness’ sake, never mind journalism – no one who actually understands the method and its implication could write the crap that he has churned out. Now someone get to scanning Malcolm Gladwell’s books for errors – there’s another hack that needs to fall down.


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