The Jonah Lehrer Tragedy Hits Home

Another one bites the dust!

I see a pattern! Joe Paterno and Penn State football; then Rajat Gupta; and once again I write about a fallen hero – Jonah Lehrer.

Jonah Lehrer was seen as bright, cool, young, and hip. Malcolm Gladwell’s blurb in the jacket of Lehrer’s latest book IMAGINE: How Creativity Works says, “Jonah Lehrer’s new book confirms what his fans have known all along – that he knows more about science than a lot of scientists and more about writing than a lot of writers.” To be honest, I disagreed with Gladwell’s estimation of Lehrer, understanding it to be a sop to a fellow writer to help him sell books. Unfortunately every once in a while, an act of you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, misfires. Important note to blurb writers, be careful how and whom you praise.

Lehrer’s book has been recalled by its publisher as a result of his being exposed as someone who made up quotes and attributed them to Dylan (as in Bob), and then lied to cover up his fictactious (fiction parading as fact) ways. Click here to read the article by Michael Moynihan in the Tablet which exposed Lehrer.

One wonders why people think they can get away with plagiarism and fictactation in this day and age where search is so easy, and the probability of getting caught is so high.  Lehrer is not the first person to get caught making up stuff – remember Stephen Glass, James Frey, Greg Mortensen – and I suspect he won’t be the last. I simply cannot explain why they do it.

Interestingly Lehrer was booked by the college where I teach to come and present a convocation to incoming freshman on, I imagine, how creativity works! As can be expected on an academic campus, where I suspect matters of intellectual dishonesty are viewed more seriously than elsewhere, Mr. Lehrer made people rethink the invitation to him. After what I imagine were very thoughtful deliberations,  the college has canceled his appearance and made alternative arrangement to help students reflect on matters of creativity and ethics when they come here in a couple of weeks. These are never easy decisions and I am glad that I don’t have to make them. But for what it’s worth, I sent my (now rejected) recommendation to the powers that be.

What I suggested was,

 “… However now that he has been invited, and given what has ensued, I wonder if Lehrer can be requested/persuaded to speak/reflect on what he is going through now. While I agree that we should be clear about our rather absolutist stand on academic integrity, I also think there is much that our students can learn from how successful people mess up and how coming clean is the best next act after messing up. I’d also tell Lehrer that we will not pay him for his appearance on campus, but would be happy to make a contribution to a mutually acceptable worthy cause.”

 What’s in it for him? A respectable avenue to start rebuilding his trust.

I can think of many reasons why the college did not follow my suggestion. I’d like to reflect on why I think this would have been another reasonable path. I think it is important to give those who mess up, a place to reflect in a meaningful way on why they did what they did. I think we can all learn from the careful reflections of those who were held in high esteem for acts that were considered praiseworthy, but who were all too human. We seldom hear from people who are capable of being thoughtful, who mess up. If we have to understand the meaning of being human, it is as important for us to hear from those who have fallen, and from those who are mediocre, as it is to hear from those who rise above the rest of us. To be clear, fallen, and mediocre are not synonyms. There can be mediocre people who have not fallen, and fallen people who are exceptional.

I’m not looking for a mea culpa, or an apology. What interests me is an explanation. I hope Jonah Lehrer will offer one someday. If he does, I hope he publishes it somewhere prominent that I can read it. If not, I hope he sends an email to someone at the college where I teach with a request to post it on the Faculty listserv.

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