The Public Execution of Jonah Lehrer

Yesterday Twitter whipped itself into a frenzied-bloodbath of moral-outrage; nothing new there then. But for once I was quite willing to sit down and follow the twitter feed as witty put-down and vitriolic lampooning tumbled down my screen. Why? Well because the subject was Jonah Lehrer and what seemed to be his ‘Lance Armstrong-flavoured apology’. For those that don’t know who Jonah Lehrer is or what he’s apologising for I refer you to Michael Moynihan’s exposé in Tablet and Steve Myers’ piece in Poynter. If however you’re looking for the abridged version, I’d say this: Lehrer invented quotes, lied about doing it, ignored criticism and advice regarding his mistakes and profited from it, all under the guise of being a great science communicator. In doing so he betrayed the trust of many readers and fellow science communicators. With all that said, this is not what people were getting so worked up about yesterday. All that moral-outrage took place last year. This year’s angry tweets were concerned with his lunchtime presentation at a Knight Foundation conference. (FYI the video starts at about an hour into the feed. You will need to watch this video to know what I’m talking about.)

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer. Image credit: Kris Krüg (creative commons license)

Somewhat ironically, Knight Foundation invited Lehrer to give his presentation under the umbrella-theme of ‘decisions’ and how to avoid making poor ones but at the same time allowing Lehrer a platform to talk about what he’d done. So far so tenuous, but we’ll proceed.

Coming to this video straight from the twitter-storm I’ll say that I don’t think I was prepared to warm to his “apology”. Yet thanks to Twitter’s ubiquitous nature I suspect that even if I just happened to catch the presentation without the backlash fresh in my mind, I would have drawn the same conclusions in due course. That is to say, the presentation ended up feeling like a 30 minute long squirming, narcissistic non-apology. It was like watching a Scooby-doo styled bad guy intellectualising the phrase “I would’ve gotten away with it…”. Lehrer is a very intelligent fellow and on the surface of things his points seem reasonable, but with a moment of reflection the presentation leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. I worried for a second that if it wasn’t for the live-feed of twitter in the corner, people in the room might actually have bought it (it’s all too easy to just listen to the content and not question it). However, Knight Foundation let an uncensored stream of tweets quietly take down the “apology” before it had even reached the Q&A section. So while Lehrer was peddling his contrived non-apology, the audience had cause to question what he was saying.

Like a bad joke following a tragedy, I suspect that Lehrer’s apology was all a bit ‘too soon’. I couldn’t take it seriously. To me it seems apparent that he hasn’t had enough time to truly think about what he’s done and I got the feeling that he’d been thinking more about how to ‘come back’ as opposed to considering his mistakes properly. Reading between the lines a little, it seems that Lehrer was saying he’d do it all again if he thought he could get away with it:

…unless I hold myself accountable in public, then the lessons will not last.

He even said that if he didn’t stick to his new rules that he might “find a better way to fail”. Presumably Lehrer would rather expend his efforts inventing more and more plausible lies as opposed to just telling the truth. While Lehrer keeps a cool exterior, I think these statements are the most telling (there were quite a few other points that we could pick over too by the way, but let’s not flog a dead horse). What he implies throughout his presentation is that he doesn’t trust himself to never do this again. (Hopefully future editors take careful note of this.) It leads you to think that the only thing he’s truly sorry for, is getting caught. You might arrive at the same conclusion too by considering those quotes and also by thinking a little more deeply about his FBI story. He tried to link together his own short-comings and the thought that serious consequences can be avoided by sticking to tough new SOPs. Only, his new rules aren’t ‘tough’ SOPs but common practice in everyday journalism; basic common sense if you will. His mistakes weren’t simple oversight and accidental errors but wilful decisions taken to deceive, plagiarise and lie. All this (presumably) to sell books and further his career.

This takes us to the inescapable focus of the tweeting masses. Not only did Lehrer profit from his many lies and plagiarism but he’s profiting even now by talking about why he lied and plagiarised and how he’s (perhaps) never going to do it again. $20,000 (US dollars) for less than an hour’s presentation was, as it turns out, compensation for today’s charade. Knight Foundation wasted a lot of money today for a presentation that was, in my opinion, disingenuous and ultimately embarrassing for both parties. A costly price to pay. Though I’m left asking myself if $20K isn’t the only price the Knight Foundation will pay for today’s little chit-chat? Whilst money can be recouped from generous investors, credibility is a much rarer commodity and I think that they may well have just given up more than they bargained for.

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