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 He resigns from the New Yorker; Imagine is withdrawn from retailers.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.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here.

Restless farewell: is this the end for Jonah Lehrer? Credit: Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Why it's far too early to declare Ukip dead

The party could yet thrive if Brexit disappoints those who voted Leave.

"Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won," wrote the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo. Ukip can testify to this. Since achieving its founding aim - a British vote to leave the EU - the party has descended into a rolling crisis.

Theresa May's vow to pursue Brexit, and to achieve control of immigration, robbed Ukip of its political distinctiveness. But the party's greatest enemy has been itself. Its leader Paul Nuttall did not merely lose the Stoke by-election (despite the city recording the highest Leave vote), he self-destructed in the process. Contrary to his assertions, Nuttall did not achieve a PhD, was never a professional footballer and did not lose "close personal friends" at Hillsborough. Ukip's deputy Peter Whittle pleaded last weekend that voters needed more time to get to know Nuttall. No, the problem was that they got to know him all too well. A mere three months after becoming leader, Nuttall has endured a level of mockery from which far stronger men would struggle to recover (and he may soon be relieved of the task).

Since then, Ukip's millionaire sugar daddy Arron Banks has threatened to leave the party unless he is made chairman and Nigel Farage is awarded a new role (seemingly that of de facto leader). For good measure, Farage (a man who has failed seven times to enter parliament) has demanded that Ukip's only MP Douglas Carswell is expelled for the crime of failing to aid his knighthood bid. Not wanting to be outdone, Banks has vowed to stand against Carswell at the next election if the dissenter is not purged. Any suggestion that the party's bloodlust was sated by the flooring of Steve Woolfe and Diane James's 18-day leadership has been entirely dispelled.

For all this, it is too early to pronounce Ukip's death (as many have). Despite May's ascension and its myriad woes, it has maintained an average poll rating of 12 per cent this year. This is far from its 2014 zenith, when it polled as high as 25 per cent, but also far from irrelevancy. Incapable of winning Labour seats itself, Ukip could yet gift them to the Conservatives by attracting anti-Tory, anti-Corbyn voters (in marginals, the margins matter).

Though Theresa May appears invulnerable, Brexit could provide fertile political territory for Ukip. Those who voted Leave in the hope of a radical reduction in immigration will likely be dismayed if only a moderate fall results. Cabinet ministers who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce immigration have already been forced to concede that newcomers will be required to fill vacancies for years to come. Ukip will be the natural vehicle for those aggrieved by Brexit "betrayal". Some Leave voters are already dismayed by the slowness of the process (questioning why withdrawal wasn't triggered immediately) and will revolt at the "transitional period" and budget contributions now regarded as inevitable.

The declarations of Ukip's death by both conservatives and liberals have all the hallmarks of wishful thinking. Even if the party collapses in its present form, something comparable to it would emerge. Indeed, the complacency of its opponents could provide the very conditions it needs to thrive.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.