On science blogs this week: Jonah Lehrer

THE JONAH LEHRER STORY: A WHALE OF A TALE OF ADAPTIVE REUSE GONE WRONG. There are many competent science writers and a few extraordinary ones. And there are some who are both exceptional and exceptionally productive, writers whose output leaves the rest of us gaping and gasping. Do they ever sleep? Do they have families and friends and lives? How can they churn out all that stuff?

Now we know how one of them did it, and the answer is in a way reassuring to those of us with normal metabolic rates. He did it by recycling what he wrote. Brainy Jonah Lehrer got into a heap of trouble this week with the disclosure of his pattern of — let's be tactful — adaptive reuse.

"Jonah Cast Forth By the Whale." Gustave Doré.

It wasn't just that Lehrer recycled his writing, which is permissible with some caveats. It was that he recycled it without explaining that's what he was doing, without employing one of the techniques for koshering this material, for revealing to readers that he'd said something like this before. For example, you can self-cite. You can explain that the piece was adapted from something you wrote previously and give the reference. You can link to your previous work. (ADAPTIVE REUSE: Lehrer is not new to controversy. A while back in these precincts I described what happened when, in a New Yorker piece, Lehrer seemed to be saying that, as John Horgan put it, "belief in a given scientific claim is always a matter of choice.")

As a practical matter, if writers can't rework or even reuse what they've written, making a living at it will become even more impossible than it is already. Writers will be like politicians: Only those already rich will be able to afford to do it.

If writers can't rework or even reuse what they've written, then an awful lot of content should be deleted from the Web and print too. It is not condoning Lehrer's behavior to point out that if zealous moralists — like some bloggers who have been fulminating about what Lehrer did — conducted an equally careful analysis of the work of any group of randomly chosen writers, they could expect to identify instances of recycling, certainly of ideas and often of language.

My hunch is that they would also find a shocking amount of real plagiarism; that is, stealing from the writing of others. Lehrer was accused of that too, of plagiarizing Malcolm Gladwell. But at this point it seems possible that both Gladwell and Lehrer quoted William Goldman without mentioning that the quote came from a Goldman book; see below for details.

Herewith, selected blog posts:

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn sums up the charges against Lehrer and comments more in sorrow than in anger. He thinks the issues aren't complicated: using other people's work is wrong, reusing your own isn't as long as you're transparent about it. Lehrer, he says, violated both of those norms.

At Poynter, Kelly McBride rounds up many links to other posts identifying specific Lehrer transgressions. Some of them don't seem like transgressions to me, for example incorporating passages from his articles into a book. That is surely a pretty routine practice; indeed, some writers do articles on specific topics or begin a blog just in order to develop ideas for a book. If you already own a paragraph — or even a big chunk of material — that is perfect for your book, that may even have been written with your book in mind, why not use it? But McBride calls it "a form of infidelity."

Even angrier about this infidelity is a blogger whose name I love, Edward Champion. I also love that his blog is called Reluctant Habits, and that its subhed is "A cultural website in ever-shifting standing." I'm not sure what any of that means, but it sounds curiously apt. Champion gives us a chronology with an unforgiving POV. It's also kind of delicious that he focuses particularly on Lehrer's most recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. ("Not like that," Curtis Brainard writes in a recap at the Columbia Journalism Review's Observatory.

Champion identifies many many passages drawn from articles, and there is no higher dudgeon. I agree that Lehrer may be in legal trouble if he doesn't own the article copyrights. But maybe he does. Champion assumes not, but even in these anti-writer days, classy mags often let the author keep the copyright. In the appended Comments, which look tweet-like, there's a statement that sounds as if it might be coming from someone involved professionally with the book. Sarah Weinman, not otherwise identified, says

Jonah Lehrer fully acknowledges that IMAGINE draws upon work he has published in shorter form during the past several years...and is sorry that was not made clear. He owns the rights to the relevant articles, so no permission was needed. [Lehrer] will add language to the Acknowledgments noting his prior work.

My impression, however, is that Champion isn't really hipped on the legalities; he regards recycling as a moral failing and worthy of contempt.

Champion also makes the serious charge that Lehrer plagiarized a Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker article quoting William Goldman's famous diatribe on the stupidity of movie studios: "nobody, nobody — not now, not ever — knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office." But did Lehrer steal from Gladwell? Or did both authors borrow directly from the source, attributing the quote to Goldman but failing to mention that it came not from interviews but from Goldman's own book Adventures in the Screen Trade. NPR's media critic David Folkenflik tweeted this intriguing possibility, but also pointed out that Lehrer's passage adopted the same elisions that Gladwell did.

Gladwell — or someone purporting to be him, but it sounds pretty authentic — has declared in a comment on a different blog post

In 2006, I quoted a line from William Goldman about how no one knows anything in Hollywood. In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer quotes the same line. This is not surprising, since Goldman’s comment is one of the most famous things ever written about Hollywood and has been quoted, by journalists, probably hundreds of times since it was written. If Lehrer is plagiarizing me, by quoting the same quote I quoted, then I am plagiarizing the person who used that quote before me, and that person is plagiarizing the person who quoted it before them, and so on and so forth, and we have a daisy chain of “plagiarizing” going back forty years and plagiarism, as a ethical concept, has ceased to mean anything at all.

Much, much more, but I'm running out of time. Here are some links you can pursue on your own:

At Ars Technica, Jonathan Gitlin describes some locutions useful when you're quoting yourself.

At the Atlantic, Robert Wright issues A (Partial) Defense of Jonah Lehrer. It's all about the pressure to produce.

At Poynter, Andrew Beaujon presents more instances of Lehrer recycling

Also at Poynter, Craig Silverman sifts through arguments about whether recycling should be called self-plagiarism. Several writers say no, including Phil Corbett, head of standards at the New York Times and therefore an Authority if there ever was one.

Doubtless this is not yet the end of the story. At this point my reading is that the worst that can be said of Lehrer is this: He engaged in the fairly common practice of recycling his own work, but he did it without employing conventional techniques for explaining that to readers — and sometimes he did it pretty egregiously.

1 black bear (Ursus americanus), 1 log

NOT NECESSARILY SMARTER THAN THE AVERAGE BEAR. Add black bears to the growing list of animals that can count. A bit. Sort of. At The Thoughtful Animal, Jason Goldman recounts, no pun intended, new research on black bear numerosity and explains how researchers devise ways of testing whether many kinds of animals can count.

THE HIGGS BOSON, BACK AGAIN. Oo-oo-oo, many rumors that the Higgs boson has been found, really truly for certain sure this time, and that CERN scientists will say so at the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in Melbourne in a couple weeks. (ADAPTIVE REUSE: I have written about the maybe/maybe not Higgs quest before here. And also here.) Get comprehensive rumor coverage about this new episode from Adam Mann at Wired.

At Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne quotes Wired, but skip that and go to the bottom where he quotes his own exchange with Sean Carroll (the physics Sean Carroll, of course, not the biology Sean Carroll). Carroll is entirely dispassionate. He's not even skeptical. Coyne also says things like

if this turns out to be real it’s one of the greatest triumphs of that mass of gray jelly we call our mind. Out of the bowels of the earth and the vapors of the sky, we wrested materials to build a big honking machine so that we could find one of the smallest bits of matter (granted, it’s bigger than a proton). It cost over 4 billion dollars, but I think it’s well worth it.

More worthwhile than bank bailouts, certainly.

At Cosmic Log, Alan Boyle replays the rumors and links to a bunch of explanatory pieces about the Higgs and associated matters. At the Institute of Physics Blog, James Dacey links to several physics blog posts speculating about a forthcoming announcement but notes that folks associated with CERN's Large Hadron Collider, even those that are usually chatty, haven't breathed a word.

Dacey argues that's not a good thing. It reinforces a public impression that science consists of Eureka! moments rather than a plodding process of repeatedly revised experiments and repeatedly analyzed data. He then calls for a Facebook poll on whether the scientists doing the work should blog about it. Why do serious science sites do this, reinforcing the idiotic idea that a Facebook "poll" is a scientific survey rather than what it is, which is exceedingly random comments?

The Higgs boson, an LHC simulation. Credit: Lucas Taylor

At a SciAm Guest Blog, Glenn Starkman says everybody knows it's true, so let's get on with the next step, which is figuring out what, if anything, lies Beyond the Standard Model of physics. His idea is that nothing lies beyond. The Standard Model of fundamental particles is perfectly OK.

In short, don’t be surprised if the Higgs is the last new particle discovered by the LHC. Theorists may hunger for physics beyond the Standard Model, but nature may be quite content without it, thank you very much.
June 22, 2012

Advertise with NASW