Almost exactly four years after being outed as a literary cheat by Tablet magazine, Jonah Lehrer is still ashamed of what he did — though, of course, not too ashamed to write another book.
The bestselling writer, who resigned from his New Yorker gig and lost his whiz-kid reputation in 2012 when the public learned that his book “Imagine” included made-up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan, is out with a new work titled “A Book About Love.” And it wastes no time in addressing past unpleasantness, kicking off with the following author’s note:
In early August 2012, a book I wrote called Imagine was taken out of print and pulled from stores. This happened because I made several serious mistakes in the text. The worst of these mistakes involved fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan. In addition, there were passages where I relied on secondary sources that were not cited.
In the months that followed, other mistakes and failures came to light. In one instance, I plagiarized from another writer on my blog. My second book, How We Decide, was later taken out of print due to factual errors and improper citation.
I broke the most basic rules of my profession. I am ashamed of what I’ve done. I will regret it for the rest of my life.
To prevent these mistakes from happening again, I have followed a simple procedure in this book. All quotes and relevant text have been sent to subjects for their approval. This also applies to the research I describe: whenever possible, my writing has been sent to the scientists to ensure accuracy. In addition, the book has been independently fact-checked.
Sure, the phrasing can be passive and distant at times: the transgressions “involved” fabricated quotes; secondary sources “were not cited.” The recurring use of the word “mistake” can imply an almost inadvertent nature to what Lehrer did — we all make “mistakes,” after all! — and the final paragraph treats Lehrer’s actions as though the fundamental problem is less moral than procedural. Even so, Lehrer’s concise third paragraph is about as blunt and straightforward as you can get.
This note is an improvement over Lehrer’s 2013 Knight Foundation speech, in which he applied classic Jonah Lehrer formulations to his own misdeeds, investigating “the neuroscience of broken trust” to explain what he had done. (A $20,000 speaking fee didn’t help the rehabilitation effort, either.) His interview in Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” gave a better sense of his frame of mind. “I’m just drenched in shame and regret,” Lehrer tells Ronson. “The shaming process is f—ing brutal.”
This new book is not Lehrer’s first post-scandal foray into publishing. Late last year, he was featured as a collaborator on a book titled “The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior,” by UCLA behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi. (Lehrer, whose author bios are usually effusive, was identified only as “a science writer living in Los Angeles.”)
“A Book About Love” will be published by Simon & Schuster on July 12. It is Lehrer’s fourth solo book, following “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” (2007), “How We Decide” (2009) and “Imagine: How Creativity Works” (2012).
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