Jonah Lehrer on why he needs rules

Jonah Lehrer needs rules; he needs help to regain the trust he lost when his plagiarism was unveiled last summer. He made this much clear in a lunch speech given Tuesday at the Knight Foundation’s sixth annual Media Learning Seminar in Miami, Florida. (Lehrer begins just after the 1-hour mark of this video)

Jonah Lehrer needs rules; he needs help to regain the trust he lost when his plagiarism was unveiled last summer. He made this much clear in a lunch speech given Tuesday at the Knight Foundation’s sixth annual Media Learning Seminar in Miami, Florida. (Lehrer begins just after the 1-hour mark of this video)


Lehrer, of course, saw a rapid fall from grace this summer. First, it was self-plagiarism, which he apologized for when it was discovered he had re-purposed his own work across multiple publications. His publication at the time, the usually-stringently fact-checked New Yorker, accepted that apology. But a mere few weeks later, when Bob Dylan quotes in Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works were discovered, apologies could not save his job. Lehrer resigned, and said in a statement: “the lies are over now.”

In the Knight Foundation talk – for which, Poytner reports, he was paid $20,000 to deliver – Lehrer apologizes for his mistakes, though admitting he isn’t sure he won’t make them again. Here are some excerpts from his apology, as he spoke at the lunch and later published on his website.

First, the apology itself:

My mistakes have caused deep pain to those I care about. I am constantly remembering all those people I’ve hurt and let down – friends, family, colleagues. My wife, my parents, my editors. I think about all the readers I’ve disappointed, people who paid good money for my book and now don’t want it on their shelves.

I have broken their trust. For that, I am profoundly sorry. It is my hope that, someday, my transgressions might be forgiven.

Then, the process of coming to terms with what he did:

The lessons have arrived in phases. The first phase involved a literal reconstruction of my mistakes. I wanted to have an accounting, in my head, of how I fabricated those Dylan quotes. I wanted to understand the mechanics of every lapse, to relive all those errors that led to my disgrace. I wanted to understand so that I could explain it to people, so that I could explain it in a talk like this. So that I could say that I found the broken part and that part has a name.

His faults, as he has identified:

My arrogance. My desire for attention. My willingness to take shortcuts, provided I don’t think anyone else will notice. My carelessness, matched with an ability to excuse my carelessness away. My tendency to believe my own excuses.

Realizing that identifying a problem does not solve said problem:

A confession is not a solution. It does not restore trust. Not the trust of others and not the trust of myself.

Explaining that the flaws that led to his plagiarizing are systemic in himself:

What’s more, I came to see that my explanations were distracting me from the more important reality I need to deal with.

Because my flaws – these flaws that led to my failure – they are a basic part of me. They are as fundamental to my self as those other parts I’m not ashamed of. This is the phase that comes next, the phase I’m in now. It is the slow realization that all the apologies and regrets are just the beginning. That my harshest words will not fix me, that I cannot quickly become the person I need to be. It is finally understanding how hard it is to change.

Lehrer then tells the story of Brandon Mayfield, the Portland, Oregon lawyer who was erroneously detained by the FBI in 2004 after the Madrid bombings. Mayfield was arrested on a fingerprint match that turned out to not really be a match. Instead of simply apologizing, Lehrer explained that the FBI overhauled its processes. Lehrer said he plans to do the same.

That is how, one day, I will restore a measure of the trust that I have lost. Not with the arrangement of words, not with the apology, but with the commitment to a set of decent rules. To not have these procedures and processes in place is to expose myself to the possibility of indifference. It is to slip down a slope and not even notice.

But he needs some help:

My failures were my fault alone. But I’ve come to believe that, if I’m going to regain some semblance of self-respect, then I need the help of others. I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong, if only so that I can show myself I’m able to listen.

As for why:

But here’s the crucial addendum, which I failed to appreciate: screwing up is not enough. Because I certainly made lots of mistakes – I just tried not to pay attention to them. I did my best to look the other way.

And that’s why I need my new standard procedures. They are a forcing function, forcing me to deal with my own bad decisions. Writing about science, about the hard struggle for truth, has always been a profound privilege. When I lost the trust of readers, I lost that privilege.

These rules are my attempt to make sure that never happens again. If nothing else, my new procedures are a mark of my mistakes, a reminder that whatever I do next will be shadowed by what I’ve done.

The thing is, though, these processes are supposed to be built in to newsrooms. And the process of creating original work based on things that were actually said by people is supposed to be a process of journalism. Or at least that’s the idea.

But as Charles Seife wrote in a Slate feature that examined Lehrer’s transgressions, maybe these newsroom processes are broken too:

Lehrer's transgressions are inexcusable—but I can't help but think that the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure. I'm 10 years older than Lehrer, and unlike him, my contemporaries and I had all of our work scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published. When we screwed up, there was likely someone to catch it and save us (public) embarrassment. … No such luck for Lehrer; he rose to the very top in a flash, and despite having his work published by major media companies, he was operating, most of the time, without a safety net. Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.

Now, it seems, Lehrer will try to save himself. But his story, as it has unfolded over the better part of the past year, surely won’t be forgotten should another editor give him the chance. 


Related stories:

Jonah Lehrer and recycling previously published work: The roundup and reaction

The grey area of freelancers reusing their own work

End-of-summer roundup: The biggest j-stories you might have missed