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 He resigns from the New Yorker; Imagine is withdrawn from retailers.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 sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage