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 He resigns from the New Yorker; Imagine is withdrawn from retailers.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 latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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What price would the UK pay to stop Brexit?

The EU could end Britain's budget rebate and demand that we join the euro and the Schengen zone.

Among any group of Remain politicians, discussion soon turns to the likelihood of stopping Brexit. After Theresa May's electoral humbling, and the troubled start to the negotiations, those who oppose EU withdrawal are increasingly optimistic.

“I’m beginning to think that Brexit may never happen,” Vince Cable, the new Liberal Democrat leader, said recently. A growing number, including those who refuse to comment publicly, are of the same view. 

But conversation rarely progresses to the potential consequences of halting Brexit. The assumption that the UK could simply retain the status quo is an unsafe one. Much hinges on whether Article 50 is unilaterally revocable (a matter Britain might have been wise to resolve before triggering withdrawal.) Should the UK require the approval of the EU27 to halt Brexit (as some lawyers believe), or be forced to reapply for membership, Brussels would extract a price. 

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, recently echoed French president Emmanuel Macron's declaration that “there is always a chance to reopen the door”. But he added: “Like Alice in Wonderland, not all the doors are the same. It will be a brand new door, with a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real powers and with unity.”

The UK's £5bn budget rebate, achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, has long been in the EU's sights. A demand to halt Brexit would provide the perfect pretext for its removal. 

As Verhofstadt's reference to “unity” implied, the UK's current opt-outs would also be threatened. At present, Britain (like Denmark) enjoys the right to retain its own currency and (like Ireland) an exemption from the passport-free Schengen travel zone. Were the UK to reapply for membership under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, it would be automatically required to join the euro and to open its borders.

During last year's Labour leadership election, Owen Smith was candid enough to admit as much. “Potentially,” he replied when asked whether he would accept membership of the euro and the Schengen zone as the price of continued EU membership (a stance that would not have served Labour well in the general election.)

But despite the daily discussion of thwarting Brexit, politicians are rarely confronted by such trade-offs. Remaining within or rejoining the EU, like leaving, is not a cost-free option (though it may be the best available.) Until anti-Brexiteers acknowledge as much, they are vulnerable to the very charge they level at their opponents: that they inhabit a fantasy world. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.