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 He resigns from the New Yorker; Imagine is withdrawn from retailers.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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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.