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of you know, Lehrer was caught out fabricating quotes for a book; Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker and the book was withdrawn.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.”
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.
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. . .