On science blogs: The Return of Jonah Lehrer

JONAH LEHRER PROVES THAT PLAGIARISM PAYS. I haven't yet unearthed any commentary defending this week's Fat Tuesday episode in our favorite continuing story, the Jonah Lehrer Science Writing Scandal. In which, as you probably know, the disgraced science fabulist began his attempted ascent back into respectability as a lunchtime guest of the Knight Foundation. Livestreamed and tweeted.

The resurrection will be slow going. Lehrer seemed unable, or unwilling, to identify the problem, and his obligatory self-flagellation employed a lighter whip hand than most of us desired.

Lehrer might have provoked less enraged commentary had the Knight Foundation's check for ritual humiliation had been only a few hundred dollars. Or, better yet, if he had beaten his breast for free. But the Foundation cut him a check for $20,000. The rest of us puked.

TUESDAY: JONAH LEHRER APOLOGIZES, SORT OF. I won't do much rehashing of the Lehrer links already widely circulated, but will list them here for the three of you who just got back from Mars.

A video of Lehrer's Knight Foundation talk on Tuesday Feb 12, 2013.

At Atlantic Wire, J.K. Trotter storified real-time tweets from amazed/horrified/revolted onlookers. The Knight Foundation gets points for displaying this uncomplimentary running commentary on the mega-screen next to Lehrer while he talked. But it gets demerits for everything else, as discussed disgustedly below.

Andrew Beaujon's roundup post at Poynter.org, first published Tuesday, the day of the talk, and since updated. The post includes Beaujon's live blog of Lehrer's talk.

The Knight Foundation in-house blog account of the talk. No byline.

At Slate, Daniel Engber called the talk "arrogant humility" and said it "fluttered between self-flagellation and sleight-of-hand." Engber was among the first to point out the dissembling behind Lehrer's declaration that what he needs "is a new list of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures." Lehrer doesn't need a new set of rules. He needs to behave according to the old ones.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn wondered if Lehrer "was apologizing to earn himself the right to compete again, as some people have suggested was the case with Lance Armstrong." Yup.

Curtis Brainard at the Columbia Journalism Review's Observatory conceded that Lehrer has a right to try to re-enter journalism, but it's hard to accord him that leeway with so many honest journalists trying for a professional foothold.

MORE TRENCHANT OBSERVATIONS ON THE LEHRER EVENT. Rachel Feltman, a science-writing youngster, declared at Rachel Does Science that she would cut out her own kidney to get a regular blog at Wired, where Lehrer blogged before going (briefly, until he was canned for his sins) to the New Yorker. She writes passionately about the damage Lehrer has done to the public's trust in journalism.

Another science-writing youngster, Taylor Dobbs, became a SciAm guest blogger to describe how disillusioned he was by Lehrer's misdeeds, Lehrer having been a science-writing hero of his. He exhorts Lehrer to prove he is truly contrite by donating the $20,000 the foundation paid for the talk to the student scholarship fund for ScienceOnline. Since our topic here is journo ethics, let me point out with approval a shirttail on the post noting that it was edited by a co-founder of ScienceOnline. That would be the redoubtable Bora Zivkovic, the SciAm Blog Czar.

Taylor Dobbs may be new to you unless you've been to recent SciO events, but you will have heard of his father David, a science journo star whose blog Neuron Culture lives at Wired. Dobbs Senior also has some questions for his former friend. Among them: Does Lehrer have anything to confess that has not already been exposed by others? Will Lehrer hire independent fact-checkers to vet his books Imagine and How We Decide and publish the results?

Janet Stemwedel is a former physical chemist and now a philosopher, not a science journalist. But in her Doing Good Science post at SciAm, she identified the same big hole in Lehrer's talk that others had.

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 … Serious journalists were already using these standards.

Stemwedel observed that Lehrer seemed to be blaming cognitive biases for his behavior, an analysis that doesn't fit the facts. To her, his behavior was 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.

Thanx to Paul and Bora for some of these links.

THURSDAY: THE KNIGHT FOUNDATION APOLOGIZES. Brainard also trashed the Knight Foundation in his Tuesday post:

The foundation should be ashamed of the hefty purse it handed to Lehrer. Practically everyone in the media has wanted to hear from him since he admitted his mistakes in a few brief comments last year, but this was not the way. In addition to not making up quotes, journalists should not pay for interviews, especially with disgraced colleagues. Doing so only suggests that for a lot of reporters, there’s more money in fabrication and plagiarism than in journalism.

Brainard had lots of company, and by yesterday (Thursday) the Foundation had gotten the message. It apologized for the fee in an unsigned blog post.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn commented on the Knight regrets blog post. This was brave, since he was biting the hand that feeds him. Knight funds established the science journalism fellowship program at MIT. The Tracker, based there, is a valuable free daily service that features science journalists critiquing science journalism.

Erik Wemple blogs news at the Washington Post, and his is a particularly illuminating piece. It's the only blog post I've seen that involved actual reporting on what the Knight Foundation thought it was doing. Wemple interviewed Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen on Tuesday, the day of the talk. Ibargüen told him the invitation to Lehrer was in the works before the scandal broke and multiple firings occurred last year. Ibargüen also said the invitation was issued because he was interested in Lehrer's book How We Decide.

DEPARTMENT OF PURE SPECULATION. That may help explain why the talk was a hodgepodge that included so much material about cognitive bias and mistakes researchers make, a topic of the book. I hate to find myself defending Lehrer, but it's possible he was trying to accommodate the original invitation while using the occasion to begin his climb out of his self-dug pit.

Timing may also explain the outrageous fee. I am guessing that it was probably negotiated by an agent some time before Lehrer became a hot topic for other reasons — and perhaps was not out of line with what Lehrer had been getting for other public appearances. It has been rumored that Lehrer's speaking career was far more lucrative than his books, popular as they were.

On the right, Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen. Credit: Knight Foundation

On the right, Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen. Credit: Knight Foundation

Ibargüen also told Wemple on Tuesday that he was not apologetic about the fee and was happy about the publicity and interest the talk generated. That may come under the heading of I Don't Care What You Say About Me as Long as You Spell My Name Right: K-N-I-G-H-T. Which was before the Tweet-and-Blog Torrent that lead to the Thursday reversal.

Ibargüen professed disappointment, however, that Lehrer spent so much time talking about himself. Ummm, where did he think the publicity he liked so much was coming from?

DEPARTMENT OF SIMPLE EXPLANATION. At first I was stunned when I learned that Lehrer did not tape and transcribe interviews. How can you be a science writer and not tape and transcribe interviews? But of course that explains a lot. If you don't tape and transcribe (and then go back to your source for additional clarification), especially when you're writing about technical subjects that are new to you, then of course you must make things up.

No one's memory is accurate enough to manage this task, particularly the task of writing about neuroscience, without tools: background papers, journal articles, books by experts, audio and video records of lectures and interviews, and notes and transcriptions of all of the above.

Writing about science is a lot of work. It requires far more background preparation and reporting than most other kinds of nonfiction writing. I guess we don't say that often enough, so I'll repeat: Writing about science is a lot of work. It requires far more background preparation and reporting than most other kinds of nonfiction writing.

Which leads me to a point I've made here before. The explanation for what Lehrer did is not complicated or deep. No extensive psychobabble required, from him or anybody else.

It was simple corner-cutting. A time-saver. A pragmatic, if dishonest, approach to high-speed science writing.

Here's a competent science writer growing more popular by the day, probably making far more money as a public speaker than from his writing. The only thing he lacks is time. He can save a lot of it by not recording interviews and especially by not transcribing them, a job that's the pits anyway. He can save a lot of it by not reading as much as he should, by not going back to his sources to make sure he really understands what they think their research is showing.

He can save a lot of time by absconding with what others have said. Or, even easier, just making it up. And so he did.

Not complicated at all. And, until recently when the Internet gave everybody tools for tracking down fabulation and plagiarism, there's quite a good chance he could get away with it.

My hunch is that a lot of other writers are quaking in their boots when they hear the name Lehrer. They fear that they, too, are headed for disgrace because these new tools will lay bare their old sins against the purpose of journalism.