Jonah Lehrer Turns 31
Jonah Lehrer, the wunderkind neuroscience writer who was a darling of the tech set until last week’s self-plagiarism scandal, turned 31 today. It probably wasn’t his happiest of birthdays. I’ve lost none of my tremendous respect and admiration for him; instead, I have great compassion and empathy for him.
I tell young people hungry for success that getting there is easy. It’s maintaining an honest, ethical and moral life while staying there that’s the real challenge. I accept Lehrer’s apology, “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” The test will be how he handles this. I trust he will learn from this mistake.
A New Yorker print subscriber, I appreciate that editor David Remnick will keep him on:
“There are all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors in this business,” Remnick told me in a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon, “and if he were making things up or appropriating other people’s work that’s one level of crime.” …
“This was wrong and foolish,” Remnick added, “and I think he thought that it was OK to do this in the blogging context — and he is obviously wrong to think so.”
I’m also a fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Lehrer has also been accusations of plagiarizing Gladwell to which Gladwell replies:
“The conventions surrounding what is and is not acceptable in magazine writing, books and speaking have been worked out over the past 100 years. The conventions over blogging are being worked out as we speak,” Gladwell told WWD. “Everyone who writes for a living is going to learn from this. I’m just sorry Jonah had to bear the brunt of it.”
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.
By the way, if I run across the same absurd allegation anywhere else, I intend to reproduce my comment verbatim. Why? Because I thought about what I wanted to say, I’m comfortable with the way I said it, and I see no reason to tinker with my own language for the sake of tinkering with my own language.
No one is defending Lehrer except, partially, Robert Wright:
This isn’t a defense of Jonah Lehrer in the sense of arguing that he’s blameless for his fairly egregious pattern of “self-plagiarism” (or, as he might prefer to put it, his pattern of “high-fidelity recycling”). And I’m not addressing at all Lehrer’s alleged instance of actual plagiarism, which is a much more serious matter. My only point is that the current journalistic environment encourages recycling, and renders his misdeeds less surprising than they’d have been in, say, 1987, when I was his age and had never heard the word “internet”.
There are basically three new factors at play:
1) More than before, success in journalism is about sheer quantity of output. In 1987 if you named the top young (say, under age 35) pundits and essayists, a number of them were people averaging maybe 1,000 or 1,500 words a week of output, perhaps in the form of a single weekly column. Now the young superstars average more like 5,000, even 10,000 words a week, broken up into 10, 20, 25 pieces. If you’re young and you want to keep getting noticed, you’ve pretty much got to produce at this volume, unless you’re sitting at one of the handful of remaining elite perches (The New Yorker, The New York Times)–and even at these places, quantitative expectations are rising as writers like Ross Douthat, Paul Krugman, and Hendrik Hertzberg blog in addition to doing their traditional writing. (And if you are going to try to get by on merely a couple of thousand words a week, you’d better get at least another 1,500 words onto Twitter to make up for it.)
2) As quantitative expectations rise, and the old revenue model of journalism continues to melt, pay-per-word drops. If Slate’s Matthew Yglesias was getting paid the effective per-word rate I got when I wrote a column for Slate upon its launch in 1996, he’d be making over a million dollars a year. Judging by his position on tax breaks for the rich, he’s not.
3) As the above two factors have strengthened the incentive to recycle your work, the ethos of the web has made old lines blurrier and has made recycling seem less obviously wrong. Every day blog posts appear in the Huffington Post that also appear on one, two, three other sites. Do all of the versions of the post mention all the other versions? Sometimes, sure. But it’s not like anyone throws a fit when they don’t.
Felix Salmon makes a great point when he suggests that Lehrer’s problem was his approach to blogging. Lehrer’s a writer who writes rather than blogs. Salmon’s sound suggestions for all of us who aspire to the blogging arts:
Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away. Those posts can be much shorter than the things Lehrer’s writing right now: basically, just an excited “hey look at this”, with maybe a short description of why it’s interesting. It’s OK if the meat of what you’re blogging is elsewhere, rather than on your own blog. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point.
Secondly, use links as shorthand. Kouwe and Lehrer were both brought down by the fact that they felt the need to re-write what had already been written elsewhere. On the web, you never need to do that. If you or someone else has already written something well, just link to that, rather than feeling the need to repeat it.
Thirdly, use the blog to interact with your peers, rather than just primary sources. There are hundreds of great science and ideas blogs out there already; start reading them, and be generous about linking to them. Your readers will thank you. When you see an article you wish you’d written, link to it and say so. When someone finds a fantastic paper and writes it up in a slightly incomplete way, credit them with the great find, and then fill in the blanks. When two or three people are all talking about the same thing, sum up what the debate is, and explain where you stand.
Fourthly, iterate. Lehrer is a big-name journalist at a major publication: when he writes stuff, people respond, often on their own blogs, and often with very keen intelligence. Link to those people, learn from them, converse with them via the medium of blog, and use that collaboration and conversation to hone and further develop your own ideas. Treat every blog post as the beginning of a process, rather than as the end of one.
Recycling an idea is good if it speeds up the spread of the idea. Plagiarism is an offense only if it harms the original creator. If Jonah Lehrer is the original creator then whatever harm he is causing himself (i.e. none) he fully internalizes. No exernalities here, move on. You get the sense that journalists are mindlessly misapplying a norm they apparently don’t fully understand. …
When we recognize the equivalence what we really should conclude is that policing plagiarism is just as absurd as policing self-plagiarism. Ideas are useless if they are not spread and the value of an idea is independent of who created it. To put a halt to the spread of an idea just because of a dispute about somebody’s long-ago sunk cost is a pure social waste.
The Beach Boys are touring right now playing their same old, same old. Fareed Zakaria gave the same commencement speech at Duke and Harvard. I accept that it’s not good form. Still, I read the New Yorker, Wired and buy Lehrer’s books. I don’t give a hoot that the same anecdote is told in all three. Especially given that an editors note is all it takes to make it okay. That’s a convention I’m not entirely sure is necessary in a world that’s too big to know.