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Some musings on Jonah Lehrer’s $20,000 “meh culpa”.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Remember some months ago when we were talking about how Jonah Lehrer was making stuff up in his “non-fiction” pop science books? This was as big enough deal that his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, recalled print copies of Lehrer’s book Imagine, and that the media outlets for which Lehrer wrote went back through his writing for them looking for “irregularities” (like plagiarism — which one hopes is not regular, but once your trust has been abused, hopes are no longer all that durable).

Lehrer’s behavior was clearly out of bounds for anyone hoping for a shred of credibility as a journalist or non-fiction author. However, at the time, I opined in a comment:

At 31, I think Jonah Lehrer has time to redeem himself and earn back trust and stuff like that.

Well, the events of this week stand as evidence that having time to redeem oneself is not a guarantee that one will not instead dig the hole deeper.

You see, Jonah Lehrer was invited to give a talk this week at a “media learning seminar” in Miami, a talk which marked his first real public comments a large group of journalistic peers since his fabrications and plagiarism were exposed — and a talk for which the sponsor of the conference, the Knight Foundation, paid Lehrer an honorarium of $20,000.

At the New York Times “Arts Beat” blog, Jennifer Schuessler describes Lehrer’s talk:

Mr. Lehrer … dived right in with a full-throated mea culpa. “I am the author of a book on creativity that contains several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes,” he told the crowd, which apparently could not be counted on to have followed the intense schadenfreude-laced commentary that accompanied his downfall. “I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking without credit or citation an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I plagiarized from myself. I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications.”

“My mistakes have caused deep pain to those I care about,” he continued. “I’m constantly remembering all the people I’ve hurt and let down.”

If the introduction had the ring of an Alcoholics Anonymous declaration, before too long Mr. Lehrer was surrendering to the higher power of scientific research, cutting back and forth between his own story and the kind of scientific terms — “confirmation bias,” “anchoring” — he helped popularize. Within minutes he had pivoted from his own “arrogance” and other character flaws to the article on flawed forensic science within the F.B.I. that he was working on when his career began unraveling, at one point likening his own corner-cutting to the overconfidence of F.B.I. scientists who fingered the wrong suspect in the 2004 Madrid bombings.

“If we try to hide our mistakes, as I did, any error can become a catastrophe,” he said, adding: “The only way to prevent big failures is a willingness to consider every little one.”

Not everyone shares the view that Lehrer’s apology constituted a full-throated mea culpa, though. At Slate, Daniel Engber shared this assessment:

Lehrer has been humbled, and yet nearly every bullet in his speech managed to fire in both directions. It was a wild display of self-negation, of humble arrogance and arrogant humility. What are these “standard operating procedures” according to which Lehrer will now do his work? He says he’ll be more scrupulous in his methods—even recording and transcribing interviews(!)—but in the same breath promises that other people will be more scrupulous of him. “I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong,” he said, as if to blame his adoring crowds at TED for past offenses. Then he promised that all his future pieces would be fact-checked, which is certainly true but hardly indicative of his “getting better” (as he puts it, in the clammy, familiar rhetoric of self-help).

What remorse Lehrer had to share was couched in elaborate and perplexing disavowals. He tried to explain his behavior as, first of all, a hazard of working in an expert field. Like forensic scientists who misjudge fingerprints and DNA analyses, and whose failings Lehrer elaborated on in his speech, he was blind to his own shortcomings. These two categories of mistake hardly seem analogous—lab errors are sloppiness, making up quotes is willful distortion—yet somehow the story made Lehrer out to be a hapless civil servant, a well-intentioned victim of his wonky and imperfect brain.

(Bold emphasis added.)

At Forbes, Jeff Bercovici noted:

Ever the original thinker, even when he’s plagiarizing from press releases, Lehrer apologized abjectly for his actions but pointedly avoided promising to become a better person. “These flaws are a basic part of me,” he said. “They’re as fundamental to me as the other parts of me I’m not ashamed of.”

Still, Lehrer said he is aiming to return to the world of journalism, and has been spending several hours a day writing. “It’s my hope that someday my transgressions might be forgiven,” he said.

How, then, does he propose to bridge the rather large credibility gap he faces? By the methods of the technocrat, not the ethicist: “What I clearly need is a new set of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures,” he said. “If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be fully fact-checked and footnoted. Every conversation will be fully taped and transcribed.”

(Bold emphasis added.)

How do I see Jonah Lehrer’s statement? The title of this post should give you a clue. Like most bloggers, I took five years of Latin.* “Mea culpa” would describe a statement wherein the speaker (in this case, Jonah Lehrer) actually acknowledged that the blame was his for the bad thing of which he was a part. From what I can gather, Lehrer hasn’t quite done that.

Let the record reflect that the “new set of rules” and “stricter set of standard operating procedures” Lehrer described in his talk are not new, nor were they non-standard when Lehrer was falsifying and plagiarizing to build his stories. It’s not that Jonah Lehrer’s unfortunate trajectory shed light on the need for these standards, and now the journalistic community (and we consumers of journalism) can benefit from their creation. Serious journalists were already using these standards.

Jonah Lehrer, however, decided he didn’t need to use them.

This does have a taste of Leona Helmsleyesque “rules are for the little people” to it. And, I think it’s important to note that Lehrer gave the outward appearance of following the rules. He did not stand up and say, “I think these rules are unnecessary to good journalistic practice, and here’s why…” Rather, he quietly excused himself from following them.

But now, Lehrer tells us, he recognizes the importance of the rules.

That’s well and good. However, the rules he’s pointing to — taping and transcribing interviews, fact-checking claims and footnoting sources — seem designed to prevent unwitting mistakes. They could head off misremembering what interviewees said, miscommunicating whose words or insights animate part of a story, getting the facts wrong accidentally. It’s less clear that these rules can head off willful lies and efforts to mislead — which is to say, the kind of misdeeds that got Lehrer into trouble.

Moreover, that he now accepts these rules after being caught lying does not indicate that Jonah Lehrer is now especially sage about journalism. It’s remedial work.

Let’s move on from his endorsement (finally) of standards of journalistic practice to the constellation of cognitive biases and weaknesses of will that Jonah Lehrer seems to be trying to saddle with the responsibility for his lies.

Recognizing cognitive biases is a good thing. It is useful to the extent that it helps us to avoid getting fooled by them. You’ll recall that, knowledge-builders, whether scientists or journalists, are supposed to do their best to avoid being fooled.

But, what Lehrer did is hard to cast in terms of ignoring strong cognitive biases. He made stuff up. He fabricated quotes. He presented other authors’ writing as his own. When confronted about his falsifications, he lied. Did his cognitive biases do all this?

What Jonah Lehrer seems to be sidestepping in his “meh culpa” is the fact that, when he had to make choices about whether to work with the actual facts or instead to make stuff up, about whether to write his own pieces (or at least to properly cite the material from others that he used) or to plagiarize, about whether to be honest about what he’d done when confronted or to lie some more, he decided to be dishonest.

If we’re to believe this was a choice his cognitive biases made for him, then his seem much more powerful (and dangerous) than the garden-variety cognitive biases most grown-up humans have.

It seems to me more plausible that Lehrer’s problem was a weakness of will. It’s not that he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong — he wasn’t fooled by his brain into believing it was OK, or else he wouldn’t have tried to conceal it. Instead, despite recognizing the wrongness of his deeds, he couldn’t muster the effort not to do them.

If Jonah Lehrer cannot recognize this — that it frequently requires conscious effort to do the right thing — it’s hard to believe he’ll be committed to putting that effort into doing the right (journalistic) thing going forward. Verily, given the trust he’s burned with his journalistic colleagues, he can expect that proving himself to be reformed will require extra effort.

But maybe what Lehrer is claiming is something different. Maybe he’s denying that he understood the right thing to do and then opted not to do it because it seemed like too much work. Maybe he’s claiming instead that he just couldn’t resist the temptation (whether of rule-breaking for its own sake or of rule-breaking as the most efficient route to secure the prestige he craved). In other words, maybe he’s saying he was literally powerless, that he could not help committing those misdeeds.

If that’s Lehrer’s claim — and if, in addition, he’s claiming that the piece of his cognitive apparatus that was so vulnerable to temptation that it seized control to make him do wrong is as integral to who Jonah Lehrer is as his cognitive biases are — the whole rehabilitation thing may be a non-starter. If this is how Lehrer understands why he did wrong, he seems to be identifying himself as a wrongdoer with a high probability of reoffending.

If he can parlay that into more five-figure speaker fees, maybe that will be a decent living for Jonah Lehrer, but it will be a big problem for the community of journalists and for the public that trusts journalists as generally reliable sources of information.

Weakness is part of Lehrer, as it is for all of us, but it is not a part he is acknowledging he could control or counteract by concerted effort, or by asking for help from others.

It’s part of him, but not in a way that makes him inclined to actually take responsibility or to acknowledge that he could have done otherwise under the circumstances.

If he couldn’t have done otherwise — and if he might not be able to when faced with similar temptation in the future — then Jonah Lehrer has no business in journalism. Until he can recognize his own agency, and the responsibility that attaches to it, the most he has to offer is one more cautionary tale.
*Fact check: I have absolutely no idea how many other bloggers took five years of Latin. My evidence-free guess is that it’s not just me.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. zstansfi 4:53 pm 02/13/2013

    I don’t personally like this Lehrer guy. I think he’s all about entertainment and very little about providing insight in how to think about the world. But I’m not sure I can get on board with your criticism here. I mean, okay I get it, journalists are up in arms about being betrayed, but that fact is completely disconnected from whether or not this guy will “reoffend” as you state.

    It is clearly stated in your piece that you believe a necessary factor in reducing recidivism is that a person overtly declare his agency in past actions—that is, to acknowledge that “he could have done otherwise”. [emphasis original]

    But this argument appears to rely upon your intuition as a philosopher, that it is the declaration of agency which determines actions, not perhaps, some other covert factors which rarely appear in the public eye. As a brief test of this theory: is there any empirical evidence that those who declare a failure to choose rightly in the past will be more able in the future to choose well? (And, of course, the comparison group is those who are contrite, but don’t make such a claim.)
    Otherwise, we are left with no evidence that his statements offer any predictive validity whatsoever as to whether or not he will “reoffend”.

    Indeed, the plausibility of your argument appears to rest upon the presumption that if someone realizes that he could have done otherwise, then he will recognize this ability in the future, thereby increasing his chances of acting rightly. But this statement presumes an instance where some isolated agent “could control or counteract by concerted effort” (by sheer force of will) one out of multiple possible actions and the further claim that if a person does not recognize this ability then he will fail to use it in the future. Your position offers a very specific and common sense rationale for the reasons why people act as they do, but it’s unclear whether this model conforms to reality.

    The better question to ask is simply why this man failed his journalistic duty and whether his overt declaration of a mechanistic account (cognitive biases, a failure to follow simple checks) might actually indicate that he will change his behavior in the future.

    And no amount of rhetorical theatrics will answer this question for us.

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  2. 2. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 5:20 pm 02/13/2013

    In some ways, the issue is less about Jonah Lehrer’s agency than about whether he can be successfully reintegrated into the community of journalists.

    That said, I think it’s reasonable to say the following:

    (1) The best evidence we have for how JL would behave in circumstance X is how he has behaved previously in circumstance X.

    (2) Whether or not JL can exercise a meaningful choice about how to behave in circumstance X is an empirical question.

    (3) But, if JL asserts (believes?) that his behavior in circumstance X is not under his control — that it’s driven by some feature of him that he cannot change — it is likely that he will not make a significant effort to choose to behave otherwise than the way he says he is bound to believe, and that he is not likely to make a significant effort to change the part of himself he’s identified as driving that behavior.

    And sure, the future isn’t yet written, and maybe JL will behave much better than he has so far. But, if I were a member of the journalistic community taking Jonah Lehrer at his own word? I would not trust the guy as far as I could throw him.

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  3. 3. CherryBombSim 7:03 pm 02/13/2013

    I think “but in the same breath promises that other people will be more scrupulous of him.” is fairly convincing proof that all bloggers did not take 5 years of Latin.

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