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Jonah Lehrer and the Tyranny of the Big Idea

We expect writers like Jonah Lehrer to blow our minds with an Earth-shattering new insight every week. Perhaps that isn't entirely fair.

Jonah Lehrer, wunderkind science writer (just google "jonah lehrer wunderkind"), resigned as Staff Writer at The New Yorker yesterday after finally admitting to making stuff up. He had only just started his new, high-profile gig.


The sad saga began about a month ago, on June 19, when Jim Romenesko discovered that one of Jonah Lehrer's first pieces for The New Yorker began with three paragraphs that were nearly identical to a section of an October 2011 article Lehrer wrote for The Wall Street Journal. Apparently, Lehrer had plagiarized himself. The internet's amateur research machine kicked into gear, and many, many other instances of "self-plagiarism" surfaced.

The powers that be at The New Yorker decided that self-plagiarism wasn't a grave enough crime to merit firing Lehrer, but it didn't feel like the story was over. His blog, Frontal Cortex, went eerily silent, as did his Twitter feed.

The other shoe has dropped. After weeks of investigation into suspicious Bob Dylan quotations in Lehrer's new book, Imagine, journalist Michael Moynihan finally got Lehrer to admit to lying. Here's his mea culpa:

Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine,’ The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said. The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.

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Whatever you think about Jonah Lehrer's transgressions, his treatment in the media, and his plummet from what is arguably the highest perch in American journalism, it's helpful to bear in mind that there's a demand side of this equation.

What made Lehrer so successful—with his books, at Wired, and then, for a time, at The New Yorker—was his ability to mold the results of hard science into tidy, consumer-friendly, and often unexpected insights. That's exactly what smart, curious, and busy readers like you and I want: surprising, Fun-Size ideas with just enough academic heft.

Jonah Lehrer isn't the only one capitalizing on this demand for Wow! stories. There's a whole industry. Malcolm Gladwell, the Freakonomics guys, certain TED Talks, Slate—they all trade, to some extent, on the snappy, mind-blowing idea you didn't see coming but totally seems kind of true.

The problem is that it's unreasonable to expect that every new piece of media should upend conventional wisdom or deliver a profound new insight. To think that Jonah Lehrer could expose an amazing new facet of human psychology every week, in 1,000-odd words no less, is ludicrous. There are only so many compelling, counterintuitive, true ideas out there.

But the demand for them doesn't abate. That's why you see so many science writers talking about the same handful of studies (the Stanford prison experiment, the rubber hand illusion, Dunbar's number, the marshmallow test) over and over. That's why you see pop economists who should know better creating flimsy and irresponsible contrarian arguments about climate change for shock value. That's why you get influential bloggers confessing they're only 30 percent convinced of their own arguments but "you gotta write something." That's why the #slatepitches meme hits home.

I liked Jonah Lehrer. I still like him. I won't defend his fabrications, but I've learned a lot—most of it true, I'm pretty sure—from his writing. And don't get me wrong: I certainly wouldn't wish TED away. The conference has done an admirable job getting important ideas, sources of inspiration, and truly world-changing work in front of large audiences.

My appeal is just this: Media creators, don't let the mandate for a novel Big Idea supersede your responsibility to treat your subjects honestly and with the nuance they deserve. If reality doesn't match your tidy argument, don't force it. And readers, if we expect that a writer like Jonah Lehrer dazzle us with a brand new paradigm-shifting profundity every week, maybe we're setting ourselves up for disappointment.

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