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Jonah Lehrer Is Not An Unfairly Treated Victim

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Apparently, Jon Ronson’s new book has a lengthy defense of Jonah Lehrer, equating him with Justine Sacco, the PR person who lost her job over a single apparently racist tweet that almost certainly wasn’t. As Daniel Engber explains in detail, this really isn’t going to fly. Engber finds more examples of Lehrer’s malpractice from the book prior to Imagine (which has also been withdrawn by the publisher):

Ronson makes a point of praising Lehrer’s other work. “Jonah wrote good things through his short career, essays untainted by transgression,” he says. But the Dylan quotes in Imagine were just the brightly colored fungus sprouting from a permeating rot. The Lehrer corpus is immense, and only a fraction of it has been looked at in detail—Charles Seife reviewed just 18 posts for Wired online, out of “several hundred”—yet even the most tentative surveys have dredged up misbehavior. Is it possible that Lehrer didn’t know what he was doing when he spruced up an anecdote from A. R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist in a piece for Nature, then blamed his editor for his own deception? Is it possible that he didn’t know what he was doing when he rewrote and reimagined details from Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails for Wired?

Those “mistakes” are already on the public record. It’s all too easy to unearth more. A few days ago I looked at the first chapter of How We Decide, which describes quarterback Tom Brady’s Super Bowl–winning drive against the St. Louis Rams in 2002. Lehrer’s account of those 81 seconds closely follows one from Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything, by Charles P. Pierce, which also tells that story in its first chapter. Lehrer cites the Pierce book for two specific quotes, but his game analysis and structure are more or less the same. Some sentences are copied word-for-word, like this one: “The coaches were confident that the young quarterback wouldn’t make a mistake.”

Lehrer’s version also has a multiplicity of errors and misstatements. He says, for example, that the Rams were favored by 14 points, “which made this the most lopsided Super Bowl ever played.” The game in question appears to be tied for the fourth-most lopsided in Super Bowl history. (The San Francisco 49ers were favored by 19 points in 1994.) That’s a minor point, to be sure, but it stands in for the bigger problem: Lehrer doesn’t just make “mistakes” about Bob Dylan; he makes “mistakes” about lots of things—and his “mistakes” tend to make his stories more exciting.

Right. In a sense, Lehrer’s actual plagiarism was an extreme manifestation of the laziness and sloppiness that was pervasive in Lehrer’s work. As Isaac Chotiner explained before it was known that Lehrer made up Dylan quotes, the story Lehrer told about Dylan as a centerpiece of Imagine — i.e. that “Like A Rolling Stone” represented a new form of songwriting — needed the invented quotes because it was utter crap. You don’t even need any particular expertise about the history of American popular song to know this — you would just need to be basically familiar with Dylan’s many influences or his work before Highway 61 Revisited. I have hard time seeing Lehrer as some kind of victim, particularly since he continues to get book contracts and lucrative speaking gigs despite his fabulism, plagiarism, and generally sloppy and under-informed work.

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