In the world of magazines, of course, none of us is immune to slickness or oversimplification—New York included. But two things make Lehrer’s glibness especially problematic, and especially representative. First, conferences and corporate speaking gigs have helped replace the journalist-as-translator with the journalist-as-sage; in a magazine profile, the scientist stands out, but in a TED talk, the speaker does. And second, the scientific fields that are the most exciting to today’s writers—neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics—are fashionable despite, or perhaps because of, their newness, which makes breakthrough findings both thrilling and unreliable. In these fields, in which shiny new insights so rarely pan out, every popularizer must be, almost by definition, a huckster. When science doesn’t give us the answers we want, we find someone who will.
“I’ve never really gotten over the sense of fraudulence that comes with being onstage,” Lehrer once said. Young and striving and insecure, he was both a product of this glib new world and a perpetrator of its swindles. He was also its first real victim.
Lehrer, who grew up in L.A. and attended prestigious North Hollywood High School, was always precocious. At 15, he won $1,000 in a contest run by nasdaq with an essay calling the stock market “a crucial bond between plebeians and patricians.” Two years later, he and some other students made the finals of the countrywide Fed Challenge for a cogent argument against raising the national interest rate. “We felt we shouldn’t act on a guess or a premonition,” he told a newspaper. “We should act on the basis of statistics.”
At Columbia University, Lehrer majored in neuroscience, helped edit the literary Columbia Review, and spent a few years working in the lab of Eric Kandel. (Journalists and scientists often mistook this undergraduate experience for lab work that left Lehrer just shy of a Ph.D.) The Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist, who was unlocking the secrets of our working memory, remembers his former lab assistant fondly. “He was the most gracious, decent, warm, nice kid to interact with,” says Kandel. “Cultured, fun to have a conversation with—and knew a great deal about food. I was surprised he didn’t go into science, because he had a real curiosity about it.”
Lehrer won a Rhodes Scholarship, then used some of his research at Oxford to write his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Published in late 2007, it was a grab bag of fun facts in the service of an earnest point: that great Modern artists anticipated the discoveries of brain science. It had a senior-thesis feel, down to an ambitious coda. Critic C. P. Snow had called, in 1959, for a “third culture” to bridge science and art—a prophecy that had been fulfilled, but to the advantage, Lehrer thought, of science. In Proust, Lehrer proposed a “fourth culture,” in which art would be a stronger “counterbalance to the glories and excesses of scientific reductionism.”
A year earlier, Lehrer had begun blogging on Frontal Cortex. After hundreds of posts, he began to find traction in magazines. Mark Horowitz, then an editor at Wired, brought him in to write a feature on a project to map all the genes in the brain. “It was a very complex piece,” says Horowitz, “with lots of reporting, lots of science. I thought that was a breakthrough for him.” It was, he adds, thoroughly fact-checked; none of Lehrer’s magazine stories have been found to have serious errors.
“If you asked him, ‘How many ideas do you have for an article?’ he had ten ideas, more than anyone else,” Horowitz says. “That’s why he was able to churn out so many blog posts.” They were long posts, too, the kind that quickly became the basis for print stories. In 2010, Frontal Cortex moved over to wired.com. “Chris [Anderson] loved Jonah Lehrer—loved him,” Horowitz says. “Any story idea he had, it was, ‘See if Jonah will do it.’ He was good, he was young, and he was getting better with every story.”
Lehrer’s tortuous fall began on what should have been a day of celebration. Monday, June 18, was his official start date as a New Yorker staff writer. That evening, an anonymous West Coast journalist wrote to media watchdog Jim Romenesko, noting that one of Lehrer’s five New Yorker blog posts—“Why Smart People Are Stupid”—had whole paragraphs copied nearly verbatim from Lehrer’s October 2011 column for The Wall Street Journal.
Within 24 hours, journalists found several more recycled posts, setting off a feeding frenzy one blogger called the “Google Game”—find a distinctive passage, Google it: pay dirt. On Wednesday, the irascible arts blogger Ed Champion unleashed an 8,000-word catalogue of previously published story material Lehrer had worked into Imagine. (Never mind that drawing on earlier stories for book projects is standard practice.) It was called “The Starr Report of the Lehrer Affair.” That day Lehrer told the New York Times that repurposing his own material “was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.”