Jonah Lehrer's true lies
So he made up some Bob Dylan quotes. Does the science writer deserve another chance?
“It’s as if our facts were losing their truth,” wrote Jonah Lehrer in December 2010 in a New Yorker article about the “decline effect” in scientific research – the process by which even the most robust-seeming findings can start, over time, to seem less robust. Eleven years earlier, in a song called “Ring Them Bells”, Bob Dylan sang: “They’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” Both journalist and singer are well aware that fact and fiction aren’t absolutes. Indeed, in “Trust Yourself” (1985), Dylan suggests that “the truth may only be ashes and dust”. So it has proved in the sorry tale of Lehrer’s career suicide.
Here's what happened: Lehrer, a bestselling young author of science books and a writer for the New Yorker, makes up quotes from Dylan in his latest book, Imagine. Another journalist, Michael C Moynihan of the Tablet website, smells a rat and presses Lehrer for page references, transcripts, whatever would corroborate his story. Having recently been called out for self-plagiarism, Lehrer knows the stakes are high. So he lies to Moynihan about the quotes' provenance. Then he crumbles under pressure and admits to the fabrications. He resigns from the New Yorker; Imagine is withdrawn from retailers. That book concerns our “ability to imagine what has never existed”. It’s a bitter irony that this ability has been the author’s undoing.
Journalists love to pontificate on the downfall of colleagues. There's a hint of Schadenfreude in Jeff Bercovici's account of the scandal for Forbes: “After . . . Lehrer was busted recycling past columns and passing them off as new work, the New Yorker let him off with the lightest of wrist-slaps, allowing him to keep his new job as a staff writer. It was a waste of mercy.” The disgraced former New York Times journalist Jayson Blair, meanwhile, confesses at the Daily Beast: “Nine years ago, I was Jonah Lehrer.” His ruminations about “guarding against the evil from within” strain to elevate Lehrer's mistake (or “crime”, as Bercovici would have it) into some kind of philosophical crisis.
But Lehrer’s transgressions weren’t “evil”. They were simply errors of judgement. He has admitted that he owes “a sincere apology to Mr Moynihan”; however, the “gravity” of his current situation is disproportionate to his misdeeds. In resigning from the New Yorker, Lehrer left one of the most prestigious posts a young writer can hope to occupy. His reputation has been tarnished, perhaps irreparably – but for what?
Visions of sin
Trawling through Lehrer's book Imagine, Moynihan found “fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics”, which had been “welded together to create something that happily complemented Lehrer’s argument”. Then he found the words “I’m glad I’m not me” – spoken by Dylan in D A Pennebaker’s 1967 film Don’t Look Back – appended with a second, made-up line (“I’m glad I’m not that”). And there were “other, more troubling anomalies”, including this fictional response from the singer to a Time journalist, supposedly in the same movie: “I just write [my songs]. There’s no great message. Stop asking me to explain.”
Lehrer also claimed that, in 1995, Dylan said his “songs weren’t about anybody”. Moynihan pointed out that the only radio interview Dylan gave that year “doesn’t include these lines”. He was, of course, right. Yet the sentiment has cropped up countless times throughout the singer’s career (for example, in his memoirs, Chronicles, Dylan denies that Blood on the Tracks was “autobiographical” and insists that it was “based on Chekhov short stories”). Likewise, Dylan has consistently shot down the suggestion that there’s a "great message" in his work and has parried reporters' attempts to get him to explain his lyrics. Lehrer could easily have used bits from real interviews to make his point. The perplexing thing is that he didn't.
Maybe Dylan himself would approve - the singer has been equally liberal with quotes and interpreting real-life stories, such as the ordeal of the boxer Rubin Carter in "Hurricane". In the 1999 song "Things Have Changed", he sings: "All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie." Journalism, however, demands a less fluid relationship with reality's precise details.
That's probably why Julie Bosman at the New York Times calls Lehrer's handful of half-truths “one of the most bewildering recent journalistic frauds”. What Lehrer did was garden-variety stupid. It was lazy and careless. The knives are out and Lehrer seems to be fair game for the nasty brigade. ABC News today added him to its "list of publishing offenders". But let’s not get carried away and demand more than he owes. He's already apologised and left his employers. He will have to live with the stigma and mistrust for a good while yet. Surely that's punishment enough. Lehrer is an excellent writer and his departure from the field for something so daft would be a loss. "We learn to live, and then we forgive," Dylan once sang. Sounds like a good idea.