I was shocked and disappointed today to learn, thanks to a conversation with David Burkus, that acclaimed “brain science” author and creativity expert Jonah Lehrer has admitted to fabricating many of the quotations attributed to Bob Dylan in his New York Times bestselling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” The book has been pulled by his publisher from most physical and virtual bookshelves, including Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Not found on Amazon or B&N

I’ve been reading Lehrer’s book “Imagine” this summer in the iBooks app on my iPad, and have really enjoyed many of the stories as well as cited research journal articles. I’ve tweeted a few quotations as well as book recommendations I picked up as a result, which you can access via this search link in my “Tweet Nest” archive for “jonahlehrer.” This situation provides a dramatic case study in writing and journalistic ethics. I encourage you to learn about the situation and share it with your students. Integrity, ethics, and proper attribution are vital for writers. Unfortunately, Lehrer has provided a vivid example of how NOT to act as an author, writer and public speaker. There are important lessons to learn and apply from this situation.

In his July 30th post, “Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions,” Michael Moynihan explains what he eventually learned in following up on Lehrer’s alleged quotations of Bob Dylan in “Imagine” which were “sparsely footnoted.”

Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”

According to Moynihan, Lehrer has promised to make corrections for this and other fabricated quotations in “future editions” of his book. Lehrer is a young writer and still early in his career, but this situation (as several commenters on Moynihan’s post point out) is far more than a “mis-step.” Lehrer has called into question his integrity, and I for one doubt whether he can ever restore it fully as a journalist, author or speaker. While I had been eagerly reading “Imagine: How Creativity Works” and planned to cite it in my upcoming presentations as well as future books, now I’ll only reference it as a case study in immoral writing ethics. There are references I like, but I won’t be citing Lehrer if I use them. Instead I’ll be finding the original sources myself if I use those anecdotes or studies at all. It’s depressing, particularly given how much enthusiasm I’ve felt over the past couple of months as I’ve been reading Lehrer’s book off and on. If Lehrer is Humpty Dumpty, he’s fallen off the wall and no one can put him back together again. As a journalist, he’s self-destructed through flagrant dishonesty. Thankfully, the detail-focused journalist Michael Moynihan has “outed” Lehrer and revealed his book to be at least a partial work of fiction which cannot be trusted and certainly should NOT be cited by anyone with academic integrity.

'Humpty Dumpty Had A Great Fall.' photo (c) 2009, Derek Key - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

It’s hard to know what Lehrer’s next steps will be. As of this evening, he hasn’t tweeted since June 17th. He’s clearly had a phenomenal speaking career up to this point. The Lavin Agency, which represents him as a speaker, opens his page with these sentences:

Jonah Lehrer is America’s most popular chronicler of neuroscience. Captivating, accessible and never dull, he cracks open the black box of the mind to reveal how we think and how we can make better decisions. His wondrous new talk—bursting with insight—examines the science of creativity, showing us the steps we can take to become more innovative in our daily lives.

Erik Wemple‘s editorial last week for the Washington Post, “Where Jonah Lehrer still rules,” highlights the irony of the Lavin Agency STILL not making any references to this controversy or making any changes to Lehrer’s speaker page as a result of these dramatic events. One wonders when they will?

While we can’t know Lehrer’s next steps, I do think it’s possible to draw some optimistic and positive conclusions from this situation. Crowdsourcing, blogging, and persistently pursued research has “won the day” here. “Lehrer’s little secrets” about his book “Imagine” aren’t hidden and shrouded in darkness any longer. I agree with Hank Campbell who wrote last week for Science 2.0:

There are two things I see as patterns or at least rails of thought after reading all these talented writers pontificate on the matter; one is that the system works. Not necessarily the traditional publishing system. Some writers contend that Wired has the most thorough fact checking in the world but Lehrer wrote tens of thousands of words for them and they found nothing wrong. But the power of crowdsourcing works in broad media just like it works in science; bloggers tripped up a stealth Creationist paper that peer review missed, as one example. The system kicked in and a guy with 50,000 Twitter followers and a new, swanky gig at a prestigious old publication to go with those CNN appearances was suddenly being disowned.

I also agree with Campbell’s second point regarding the importance of not believing and spreading/sharing “pop neuroscience” which doesn’t have a scientific, sound research base. I’m reminded of the debunked “learning pyramid research” which I heard representatives of Marzano Research Lab present at educational PD events on April 2, 2012 and on January 24, 2012. I really should write a post sharing some details about the fallout from that April blog post, which involved Learning Tree employees, allegations of copyright infringement, and lots of other messy stuff. As an academic and a Ph.D. I see it as part of my professional obligation to “attend to details” like attribution and research study links. In the world of educational professional development and book publishing for the masses, however, this isn’t a popular passion with some folks. It can get get messy, and it can be unpleasant, but TRUTH can be shared. Next time you hear someone lament our age of blogging, social media and crowd sourcing, tell them this Michael Moynihan story about Jonah Leherer’s lack of integrity as an author. Absent social media, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Thank you, Michael Moynihan. While Jonah Lehrer has disappointed many of his readers (myself included) Michael has further strengthened my belief in the power of open reporting and persistent journalists who do their homework. Integrity shines through the work of Moynihan.

I don’t recommend that you read any of Jonah Lehrer’s books. Any of them. Dr. Daniel Bor, in his August 1st post for Psychology Today, “Jonah Lehrer Charmed Me, Then Blatantly Lied to Me About Science,” provides specific details about how Lehrer’s “glaring factual errors” were in plain view prior to this most recent Bob Dylan quotation controversy. Lehrer has gifts as a writer, but his shortcomings with integrity constitute a “fatal error.” There are important lessons to be learned here, but the first one for me is this: Jonah Lehrer is NOT an author worth reading online or offline anymore.

''A Fatal Error has occured.'' photo (c) 2010, Justin Pickard - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I agree with Bor’s closing paragraphs:

Finally, I think the bottom line here is trust. Lehrer betrayed the reader’s trust, not just with making up Bob Dylan quotes, but perhaps more importantly by pretending that his scientific descriptions were carefully, rigorously checked and sourced, when they weren’t. And just as vitally, he didn’t think to update his work when mistakes were apparent. But part of the blame also lies with the industry in failing to create a pressure for accuracy, such as with a pre-publication professional critique. We trust our magazines and publishers to oversee their writers, but this isn’t necessarily the case. With the explosion of blogging, tweeting and so on, I hope increasingly that scientists can keep tabs on such issues, and make them public, as Chabris so ably did with his review of Imagine.

But perhaps you also have a role to play in keeping a hint of doubt always in your mind, perhaps a little more broadly for journalists than scientists. And with the internet an increasingly interactive place, many times you have the power to check facts yourself, badger authors for sources, or other scientist bloggers with questions and clarifications. This way we can all do our bit to raise the quality of scientific writing.

Where should we focus our attention and energy as classroom teachers as we “implement the Common Core State Standards” this year in Oklahoma and other states? CRITICAL THINKING is a great place to start, along with EVIDENCE BASED WRITING. These are both things we can do fruitfully as we “Map Media to the Common Core.” This story about Moynihan and Lehrer can be fodder for fruitful class discussions and writing assignments in the weeks ahead. If you share this situation with your students, please let me know with a comment or a tweet!

Integrity matters.

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  • Kathysue

    as a student of the creativity sciences at Buffalo State’s acclaimed International Center for Studies in Creativity, we are taught first and foremost about the importance of citing references properly and accurately. it is an ethical stance really. how anyone could blatantly misuse, misrepresent, and misguide others is beyond me. however, even i know that if there is a quote within a written work, that it must be validated. usually, these are done so with footnotes, citations within and/or at the end of the written work. doing so proves its authenticity and its worth. and if the quote is not cited accordingly, then it is up to the person who wants to use that quote to find its source. never should you take a quote and use it without finding its original source.

  • Kathysue

    as a student of the creativity sciences at Buffalo State’s acclaimed International Center for Studies in Creativity, we are taught first and foremost about the importance of citing references properly and accurately. it is an ethical stance really. how anyone could blatantly misuse, misrepresent, and misguide others is beyond me. however, even i know that if there is a quote within a written work, that it must be validated. usually, these are done so with footnotes, citations within and/or at the end of the written work. doing so proves its authenticity and its worth. and if the quote is not cited accordingly, then it is up to the person who wants to use that quote to find its source. never should you take a quote and use it without finding its original source.

  • http://www.bellevue.edu/security-management/ Mary Madsen

    His only explanation was “I couldn’t find the original sources and I panicked”. Come on Mr. Lehrer!.

  • Pingback: Week 1: Moving at the Speed of Creativity Blog by Wesley Fryer | Miss. Erin Walker

  • Curby

    Thanks for your thoughtful write-up, Wes. This is unbelievably disappointing to me, as one of those people who not only read the book but spoke (and blogged) about it in high regard. Ironically, for me at least, I found the Bob Dylan story to be one of the least convincing parts of the book. Had this bit in the book been less developed and had less (or no) quotes from anyone, it would have not made less of an impression on me. I just did not consider this scenario to be that compelling. I guess I’m not a Dylan fan. But, in an attempt to manipulate sources in order to tell HIS story, Lehrer has cast everything he has ever written in doubt. I certainly will not be reading any of his work anymore, and I probably will not mention his name anymore. Whether it’s sports, writing, finances or any other area of life, once a cheater, always a cheater (at least in the public opinion).

  • http://twitter.com/wfryer Wesley Fryer, Ph.D.

    Update: Wired Magazine let Leherer go over the Labor Day holiday weekend:
    http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/09/jonah-lehrer-plagiarism-but-wait-theres-more.html

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer
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