We are all bad apples,” wrote Jonah Lehrer, in probably the last back-cover endorsement of his career. “Dishonesty is everywhere … It’s an uncomfortable message, but the implications are huge.”
Lehrer’s blurb was for behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. Among Ariely’s bite-size lessons: We all cheat by a “fudge factor” of roughly 15 percent, regardless of how likely we are to get caught; a few of us advance gradually to bigger and bigger fudges, often driven by social pressures; and it’s only when our backs are up against the wall that we resort to brazen lies.
Lehrer, 31, had already established the kind of reputation that made his backing invaluable to a popular science writer. Thanks to three books, countless articles and blog posts, and many turns on the lecture circuit, Lehrer was perhaps the leading explainer of neuroscience this side of a Ph.D. He was kind enough to interview Ariely this past June for the Frontal Cortex, a blog Lehrer had started in 2006 and carried with him from one high-profile appointment to the next. The New Yorker had begun hosting it that month, after Lehrer was hired as a staff writer—another major career milestone. But newyorker.com didn’t run the Ariely story, because by the time he wrote it, Lehrer had already been banned from his own blog. Two weeks earlier, readers had discovered that he was rampantly “self-plagiarizing” his own blog posts among different media outlets. Lehrer held onto his three-day-old print contract, but the blog was on ice.
Then it got so much worse. Four excruciating months later, Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will soon conclude a fact-check of his three books, the last of which, Imagine, was recalled from bookstores—a great expense for a company that, like all publishing houses, can’t afford to fact-check most books in the first place. In the meantime, he’s been completely ostracized. It’s unclear if he’ll ever write for a living again.
If the public battering seems excessive now, four months in, that should come as no surprise. That’s how modern scandals go—burning bright, then burning out, leaving a vacuum that fills with sympathy. It’s especially true in cases like Lehrer’s, where the initial fury is narrowly professional, fueled by Schadenfreude and inside-baseball ethical disputes. It was fellow journalists who felled Lehrer, after all, not the sources he betrayed. But the funny thing is that while the sins they accused him of were relatively trivial, more interesting to his colleagues than his readers, Lehrer’s serious distortions—of science and art and basic human motivations—went largely unnoticed. In fact, by the time he was caught breaking the rules of journalism, Lehrer was barely beholden to the profession at all. He was scrambling up the slippery slope to the TED-talk elite: authors and scientists for whom the book or the experiment is just part of a multimedia branding strategy. He was on a conveyor belt of blog posts, features, lectures, and inspirational books, serving an entrepreneurial public hungry for futurist fables, easy fixes, and scientific marvels in a world that often feels tangled, stagnant, and frustratingly familiar. He was less interested in wisdom than in seeming convincingly wise.
The remarkable thing about that transformation is that it wasn’t all that unusual. In his short, spectacular career, Lehrer had two advocate-editors who quickly became his exilers. The first, Wired editor Chris Anderson, has himself been caught plagiarizing twice, the second time in an uncorrected proof. The often-absentee editor of a futurist magazine that may be the house journal of the lecture circuit, Anderson makes his living precisely as Lehrer did—snipping and tailoring anecdotal factoids into ready-to-wear tech-friendly conclusions.
The second, David Remnick, has invested resources in The New Yorker’s own highbrow talk series, The New Yorker Festival, in which staff writers function as boldfaced brand experts in everything from economics to medicine to creativity. The tone of those talks mixes the smooth technospeak of the Aspen Ideas Festival—co-hosted by rival magazine The Atlantic—with the campfire spirit of first-person storyteller confab the Moth. It was at the Moth that The New Yorker’s biggest brand, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, got into hot water in 2005 by telling a story about games he played in the pages of the Washington Post that turned out to be almost entirely untrue. In print, Gladwell is often knocked for reducing social science to easy epiphanies and is occasionally called out for ignoring evidence that contradicts his cozy theories—most recently over a piece this past September on Jerry Sandusky. Yet he also serves as a pioneer in the industry of big-idea books—like those by his New Yorker colleague James Surowiecki, the “Freakonomics” guys, Dan Ariely, and others. Theirs is a mixed legacy, bringing new esoteric research to a lay audience but sacrificing a great deal of thorny complexity in the process.