New Yorker Writer Jonah Lehrer Plagiarizes Himself Repeatedly [Updated]

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Did you ever pull that old college trick where you wrote the same paper for two classes? It's frowned upon, but hard to get caught. Not so on the Internet: New Yorker staffer Jonah Lehrer, who was just hired, has often reused his own exact wording without noting it in his work at NewYorker.com, Wired, the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and in his 2009 book, How We Decide. He was first busted this morning by Jim Romenesko borrowing three introductory paragraphs that he first used last October in the Journal. They appeared again last week in an online article on NewYorker.com titled, "Why Smart People Are Stupid." But a bit of digging by Daily Intel shows that it's not the first time the prolific Lehrer, who's contributed to the Washington Post and "Radiolab," has doubled up.

All five of Lehrer's blog posts so far for NewYorker.com now come with Editor's Notes: "We regret the duplication of material."

Here's one example from the Journal:

Here's a simple arithmetic question: "A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?"

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs 10 cents. This answer is both incredibly obvious and utterly wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and $1.05 for the bat.) What's most impressive is that education doesn't really help; more than 50% of students at Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology routinely give the incorrect answer.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this for more than five decades. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way that we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents, Mr. Kahneman and his scientific partner, the late Amos Tversky, demonstrated that we're not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

And then, from the New Yorker:

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

For more than five decades, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this and analyzing our answers. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman, the late Amos Tversky, and others, including Shane Frederick (who developed the bat-and-ball question), demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

Other lines and ideas are also repeated in both pieces. While the first concludes, "Even when we know why we stumble, we still find a way to fall," the redo ends with the line, "The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand."

New Yorker web editor Nicholas Thompson told Romenesko, "It's a mistake. We're not happy. It won't happen again." The article's Editor's Note now reads, "The introductory paragraphs of this post appeared in similar form in an October, 2011, column by Jonah Lehrer for the Wall Street Journal. We regret the duplication of material."

A look back at some of Lehrer's other work shows more of the same. Here, from a June 5 NewYorker.com piece called "The New Neuroscience of Choking":

The sequence of events typically goes like this: When people get anxious about performing, they naturally become particularly self-conscious; they begin scrutinizing actions that are best performed on autopilot. The expert golfer, for instance, begins contemplating the details of his swing, making sure that the elbows are tucked and his weight is properly shifted. This kind of deliberation can be lethal for a performer.

And from the Observer, in 2009, in an article adapted from Lehrer's book:

The sequence of events typically goes like this: when people get nervous about performing, they become self-conscious. They start to fixate on themselves, trying to make sure that they don't make any mistakes. This can be lethal for a performer.

In another New Yorker blog post also from June 5, "The Virtues of Daydreaming," Lehrer writes:

In fact, the only activity during which we report that our minds are not constantly wandering is “love making.” We’re able to focus for that.

Last year for Wired, he wrote "The Importance of Mind-wandering":

In fact, the only activity in which their minds were not constantly wandering was love making. They were able to focus for that.

Update: Another Lehrer article from the New Yorker before he became a staff writer includes the following Editor's Note, which might be more problematic than copying oneself when taken with the above instances:

Noam Chomsky’s comments about M.I.T.’s Building 20 were not made directly to Jonah Lehrer, nor was a colleague’s description of Chomsky’s and Morris Halle’s offices as “the two most miserable holes in the whole place.” Chomsky and his colleague were interviewed by Peter Dizikes for his article in the November/December issue of Technology Review.

Additionally, two 2010 articles Lehrer wrote for the New York Times Magazine were used again at Wired, including one on depression (copied in part here) and the following three paragraphs from a story on cities (hat tip to Jacob Silverman):

The historian Lewis Mumford described the rise of the megalopolis as “the last stage in the classical cycle of civilization,” which would end with “complete disruption and downfall.” In his more pessimistic moods, West seems to agree: he knows that nothing can trend upward forever. In fact, West sees human history as defined by this constant tension between expansion and scarcity, between the relentless growth made possible by cities and the limited resources that hold our growth back. “The only thing that stops the superlinear equations is when we run out of something we need,” West says. “And so the growth slows down. If nothing else changes, the system will eventually start to collapse.”

How do we avoid this bleak fate? Constant innovation. After a resource is exhausted, we are forced to exploit a new resource, if only to sustain our superlinear growth. West cites a long list of breakthroughs to illustrate this historical pattern, from the discovery of the steam engine to the invention of the Internet. “These major innovations completely changed the way society operates,” West says. “It’s like we’re on the edge of a cliff, about to run out of something, and then we find a new way of creating wealth. That means we can start to climb again.”

But the escape is only temporary, as every innovation eventually leads to new shortages. We clear-cut forests, and so we turn to oil; once we exhaust our fossil-fuel reserves, we’ll start driving electric cars, at least until we run out of lithium. This helps explain why West describes cities as the only solution to the problem of cities. Although urbanization has generated a seemingly impossible amount of economic growth, it has also inspired the innovations that allow the growth to continue.

Here's the corresponding section from a 2012 Wired post:

The historian Lewis Mumford described the rise of the megalopolis as “the last stage in the classical cycle of civilization,” which would end with “complete disruption and downfall.” In his more pessimistic moods, West seems to agree: he knows that nothing can trend upward forever, that eventually our creativity will make life utterly unsustainable. In fact, West sees human history as defined by this constant tension between expansion and scarcity, between the relentless growth made possible by our creativity and the limited resources that hold our growth back.

Of course, the only solution to the problem of human innovation is more innovation. After a resource is exhausted, we are forced to exploit a new resource, if only to sustain our craving for growth. West cites a long list of breakthroughs to illustrate this historical pattern, from the discovery of the steam engine to the invention of the Internet. “These major innovations completely changed the way society operates,” West says. “It’s like we’re on the edge of a cliff, about to run out of something, and then we find a new way of creating wealth. That means we can start to climb again.”

But the escape is only temporary, as every innovation eventually leads to new shortages. We clear-cut forests, and so we turn to oil; once we exhaust our fossil-fuel reserves, we’ll start driving electric cars, at least until we run out of lithium. Although human creativity has generated a seemingly impossible amount of economic growth, it has also inspired the innovations that allow the growth to continue. So here’s the paradox: creativity is the only solution to the very real problem of creativity.

The Wired article is called "The Cost of Creativity," and in the introduction Lehrer writes, "After spending years with the same ideas and sentences — they become old friends — it’s invigorating to see how people react, to keep track of which concepts spark their curiosity."

Update II: Thompson, the New Yorker web editor, told Daily Intel, "Jonah is aware that he made a mistake." We've reached out to Lehrer and will update when we know more.

This post has been updated throughout.