I’ve been wanting to write about this subject for awhile but it’s been a challenge to figure out exactly what I want to say about Jonah Lehrer – journalist, author of three books, public speaker and radio personality. Lehrer’s a young guy (31, I believe) who has built quite a career for himself in media, leading to many comparisons to another celebrated writer, Malcolm Gladwell. But first, here’s an overview of Lehrer’s situation:
Author Jonah Lehrer recently resigned from his new position with The New Yorker magazine after a series of disturbing revelations about his writing. You can find details here, but in summary Lehrer’s offenses generally fall into three categories:
- Self-plagiarism (more of an issue for Lehrer’s editor or publisher than you and I, he has reused some of his writings, almost literally word-for-word, in other paid assignments )
- Questionable logic or conclusions (see Scott Berkun’s criticism of Lehrer’s criticism of brainstorming)
- Quotation misuse (fabricating, improperly using or being unable to produce the actual sources of several Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works)
None of these three categories are anything to be proud of. It’s ironic in a way that Lehrer had such a prominent blogging presence and then got caught self-plagiarizing, consider how often many bloggers reuse old material, or at least link to it.
As far as the logic inherent in Lehrer’s writings and his conclusions, I can kind of excuse this because information can be subject to interpretation and, let’s face it, many of us who write are desperately trying to find some meaning in the information we’re trying to massage into a recognizable shape. I haven’t read Imagine, so I can’t make a judgement about its conclusions.
BUT BUT BUT… quotation or anecdote fabrication, misuse and general trickery around what other people have said… to me, this is dead wrong. Lehrer was found to have misrepresented quotations to help make some of the points in his book Imagine, either by inaccurately attributing their meaning to the creative process or by splicing quotations from two separate conversations which didn’t necessarily go together. In other cases, he cited certain quotations from sources that could not be independently verified.
Which is all to say that it looks like Lehrer used possibly false or unrelated quotations to try to bolster his arguments in his book. And he didn’t admit to doing so until he was repeatedly questioned by a dedicated and knowledgeable Bob Dylan fan.
I suspect that a number of writers have engaged in these kinds of shenanigans (can’t think of a better word at the moment) more often than we may think, leaving politics out of the equation. They count on the fact that most people won’t bother checking source material. I expected better from Jonah Lehrer – he’s an author that had interesting and thought provoking things to say. I haven’t read Imagine and I don’t imagine (sorry) that I will because I don’t want to second guess everything I read in the book.
Quotations are powerful but they need to be treated with respect. I know how tempting it is to see a quotation and attempt to use it to help make a point just because it sounds good or it makes for a good sound bite. But all writers have to be better than that. Arguments need to stand on a solid foundation of fact and logic or they are merely opinions.
It’s tempting to quote “common wisdom”, proverbs, and other sayings to help bolster an argument. Sure, it can work, but for goodness sake get the context and meaning right!
The takeaway for me is an increased resolve to make sure I reference sources accurately and in the correct context and to avoid easy solutions.
As for Jonah Lehrer, he’s still a talented guy who made some serious mistakes. I doubt he and his family will starve. I just hope he does things better in the future. But I won’t read his work the same way again. Probably a good thing.
What do you think? Is this too much hand-wringing over accurate quotations? Or is misuse a problem that needs to be fixed?