Were We Too Hard on Jonah Lehrer?

A new book says yes. The facts say no.

Jon Ronson and Jonah Lehrer.
Jon Ronson and Jonah Lehrer.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Sundance London,Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for World Science Festival

“My very first thought every morning is what I’ve done wrong,” says disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer in Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, out Tuesday from Riverhead Press. “There’s a tremendous amount of remorse. And as time passes, that isn’t going away. It is miserable and haunting.”

Ronson’s book devotes two chapters and more than 50 pages to Lehrer, who serves as his prime example of a modern tendency to exact terrible justice online for minor transgressions. He retells the story of Lehrer’s outing in 2012, when the freelance journalist Michael Moynihan noticed that at least six quotes attributed to Bob Dylan, and published in Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine, had been altered or invented. Confronted with these quotes, Lehrer concocted an elaborate lie about having gotten help from Dylan’s manager, and access to unreleased footage from a Martin Scorsese documentary about the singer. When he realized that this frantic cover-up would be exposed, Lehrer called the writer 25 times in a single night, pleading for mercy. Lehrer’s agent, the industry titan Andrew Wylie, got Moynihan on the phone: “If you publish this, you’re going to ruin a guy’s life,” Wylie told him, according to the book. “Do you think this is a big enough deal to ruin a guy’s life?”

Moynihan thought it was; Ronson disagrees. “His punishment felt quite biblical,” Ronson writes, “a public shaming followed by a casting out into the wilderness.” And elsewhere: “Surely, after paying some penance, after spending some time in the wilderness, he could convince his readers and peers that he could change his ways. He could find a way back in. I mean, we weren’t monsters.”

But we were. When Lehrer finally tried to make an apology, in a speech at the Knight Foundation in Miami, the organizers put up a screen beside him showing a live-stream from Twitter. The result—a barrage of rotten fruit, thrown at someone locked in a stockade—strikes Ronson as “one of the most terrible shamings of our time,” of a type that “had been widely considered appalling in the eighteenth century.” Lehrer asked us for forgiveness, and we kicked him in the face.

That’s Ronson’s version of the story, at least. But if this scandal teaches us anything, it’s that stories can be massaged and altered to leverage our emotions and to fit a certain aim. Here’s the truth about Jonah Lehrer: His career has not been destroyed, nor has he apologized for the full extent of his mistakes. This master storyteller did not wander in the wilderness and find some inner peace. He disappeared into the bushes, licked his wounds, and re-emerged with another, even more bewitching tale—the story of his own redemption.

Am I monstrous for saying so? Perhaps some readers will agree with Ronson that Lehrer has had enough excoriation. But I don’t think it’s cruel to worry over facts, and the narrative that Lehrer has begun to spin—with assistance from the Ronson book—skirts the depths of his misdeeds. Lehrer has a book out in September (co-written with behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi) about online thinking and behavior, and then another of his own in 2016, about the power and meaning of love. Before we read these chapters of his comeback, let’s remember what he did.

What were Lehrer’s crimes? Here’s how the writer catalogued them in his Miami apology (as reproduced on his blog):

I am the author of a book on creativity that is best known because it contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes. I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking, without credit or citation, an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I lied, repeatedly, to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications.

Ronson’s version of the charges is more or less the same: A few adjusted Dylan quotes, and some desperate lies to cover his tracks. He also got in trouble for recycling his own material—a crime that Ronson doesn’t take too seriously (nor should you or I). What about the review of Lehrer’s work for Wired online, published by Charles Seife? Ronson sums it up like this: “It was mainly Jonah reusing his own sentences in different stories … [a] kind of pervasive sloppiness/plagiarism.” The worst, said Ronson, was the stolen post from Christian Jarrett.

In fact, Lehrer’s transgressions went much deeper. In Imagine, he didn’t just make up quotes from Bob Dylan; he twisted words and reversed their meanings. (Per Moynihan, for example, he suggests that Dylan had “tantrums of genius” and started tearing up his papers when his writing wasn’t going well. In context, though, that phrase from Marianne Faithfull, quoted in a Dylan book called Behind the Shades, refers not to the singer’s writer’s block but to his sexual frustration.) Lehrer also made up quotes from W. H. Auden and Raymond Teller, and misrepresented their beliefs. He plagiarized widely. (Among the victims seems to have been his erstwhile colleague Malcolm Gladwell.) Lehrer’s publisher hired fact-checkers to look closely at the book, and then it pulled remaining copies from the shelves.

Ronson makes a point of praising Lehrer’s other work. “Jonah wrote good things through his short career, essays untainted by transgression,” he says. But the Dylan quotes in Imagine were just the brightly colored fungus sprouting from a permeating rot. The Lehrer corpus is immense, and only a fraction of it has been looked at in detail—Charles Seife reviewed just 18 posts for Wired online, out of “several hundred”—yet even the most tentative surveys have dredged up misbehavior. Is it possible that Lehrer didn’t know what he was doing when he spruced up an anecdote from A. R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist in a piece for Nature, then blamed his editor for his own deception? Is it possible that he didn’t know what he was doing when he rewrote and reimagined details from Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails for Wired?

Those “mistakes” are already on the public record. It’s all too easy to unearth more. A few days ago I looked at the first chapter of How We Decide, which describes quarterback Tom Brady’s Super Bowl–winning drive against the St. Louis Rams in 2002. Lehrer’s account of those 81 seconds closely follows one from Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything, by Charles P. Pierce, which also tells that story in its first chapter. Lehrer cites the Pierce book for two specific quotes, but his game analysis and structure are more or less the same. Some sentences are copied word-for-word, like this one: “The coaches were confident that the young quarterback wouldn’t make a mistake.”

Lehrer’s version also has a multiplicity of errors and misstatements. He says, for example, that the Rams were favored by 14 points, “which made this the most lopsided Super Bowl ever played.” The game in question appears to be tied for the fourth-most lopsided in Super Bowl history. (The San Francisco 49ers were favored by 19 points in 1994.) That’s a minor point, to be sure, but it stands in for the bigger problem: Lehrer doesn’t just make “mistakes” about Bob Dylan; he makes “mistakes” about lots of things—and his “mistakes” tend to make his stories more exciting.

I could go on about the other “mistakes” in the Super Bowl chapter. Lehrer is wrong about what down it was on a crucial pass. He pretends that unexciting plays—spiked balls, incomplete passes—never happened. He offers a seemingly spurious audible from Tom Brady: “White twenty! Ninety-six is the Mike! Omaha go!” Brady never would have identified “Ninety-six” as the middle-linebacker—often called the “mike”—as there was no No. 96 on the Rams’ roster that season.* (Reason’s Greg Beato has traced that Brady quote to a Boston Globe article about a different game, played five years later.) Lehrer tweaks and prods the facts in lots of little ways, and it comes off less like sloppiness than willful indifference to the truth.

In March 2013, Houghton Mifflin decided that How We Decide, like Imagine, was so riddled with errors and deception that it should be pulped as well. The publisher offered refunds to anyone who had bought the best-selling book. Houghton Mifflin never published the results of its investigation, so there’s been no full accounting of the problems in Lehrer’s work. But it’s safe to say the Dylan quotes were just the tipoff for something much worse. This wasn’t sloppiness or a rash of dumb mistakes. At best, it was a systematic disregard for journalistic ethics. At worst, it was calculated fraud.

In light of Lehrer’s imminent comeback, though, all these documented problems are being brushed aside. He borrowed a blog post and faked some Bob Dylan quotes. That’s the story now, and it spreads in all directions. Reviews of Ronson’s book describe Lehrer as, at worst, the victim of a minor lapse in judgment:

  • “… the science writer Jonah Lehrer had simply made up some quotes from Bob Dylan in his book Imagine …” Guardian, March 5

  •  “Jonah Lehrer, who was exposed as a plagiarist (albeit of himself) and inventor of Bob Dylan quotes …” Telegraph, March 12.

  • “Jonah Lehrer, the fabulously successful pop-science writer disgraced for inventing Bob Dylan quotes in a best-selling book.” Washington Post, March 26.

  •  “… those who have been shamed for doing dumb things in the professional realm (Jonah Lehrer making up those Bob Dylan quotes … )” New Yorker, March 26.

  • “… the book’s first major episode: the outing of the popular writer Jonah Lehrer for including fake quotes from Bob Dylan in his book Imagine … They were truly inconsequential: Mr. Lehrer had just tacked on a little extra verbiage to things Dylan had really said.” New York Times, March 29.

This version of Jonah Lehrer—the sanded and refinished story of his fall from grace—fits better into Ronson’s book, which has him as the victim of our brutal zeal for retribution. More than that, it lubricates Lehrer’s reinsertion into American intellectual life. It shrinks his mistakes to a tiny mass that can be surgically removed. Lehrer says he’s suffered for his sins and emerged as a survivor.

That’s the story of his last 12 months or so, as he’s traveled on a quiet speaking tour at college campuses. In April 2014, he went to Duluth, Minnesota—the birthplace of Bob Dylan, wouldn’t you know—to give a “TED style presentation” on creativity. During his campus visit he asserted that his “gravest sins were the five [sic] Bob Dylan quotes” from Imagine, which were “rushed” and “approximate.” “I don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen,” he added. The company that represents him on the speaker’s circuit, called The Lavin Agency, touts Lehrer’s credentials as “the #1 New York Times bestselling author” of Imagine and How We Decide. There’s no mention of the fact that both those books have been withdrawn.

At least eight more speaking gigs followed. Lehrer says that he has refused payment for these appearances. When he visited Fresno State earlier this month, he acknowledged that he’d received $20,000 for the 2013 “apology” speech in Miami, but he told a student reporter that he’d donated that money in secret. (In Ronson’s book, Lehrer says this of the honorarium: “I didn’t ask for it. It was offered. They just gave it to me. … Look, I got bills to pay. I haven’t earned a penny in seven months.”) He also gave the Fresno undergrads the story of his self-plagiarism and the made-up Dylan quotes. “I would probably say that what I did, fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan, is a bigger mistake,” he said. “It’s a bigger sin than plagiarism.”

I called William Payne, the Duluth theater professor who invited Lehrer for the talk, to ask about the conference. “As soon as it became clear to certain people on the East Coast that Jonah was here, I started to get phone calls from people who had no other wish than to ruin his life,” Payne told me. “I’m not interested in participating in that. He made a mistake, and he owned up to his mistake.”

It seemed to me that Payne might have had a point. Am I part of this East Coast mob of angry journalists, out for nothing less than Lehrer’s blood? Ronson’s book suggests as much. In the coda to his chapters on the scandal, he cites a post of mine in Slate, in which I found signs of plagiarism (among other problems) in Lehrer’s newest book proposal. Could I be, as Ronson hints, a self-appointed fury, cruelly bent on someone else’s destruction? (I reached out to Lehrer for comment on this story, as I had in 2013 before I wrote about his book proposal. He did not respond, nor did Ronson to a similar request.)

But my talk with Payne was just as worrying in another way. He said the book Imagine had been very influential in his life, and that he’d shared it with colleagues and his students. When he heard about the Dylan quotes, he was devastated—in part because an important work might now be discounted. “I told him, ‘you really pissed me off,’ ” Payne says of a visit with Lehrer in Los Angeles, in which he tried to find out how these errors might have happened. “When I asked him my hard questions, I felt like he owned up to the mistakes that he had made. … He owned up to the Bob Dylan stuff,” he said. Lehrer also told Payne that “he would take to task some of the things away from the Bob Dylan quotes with regard to the Imagine book” and that “he still stands by the book.”

When I asked about the other problems in Imagine, and the ones in How We Decide, Payne became evasive. His version of the story sounded like the one that’s taking hold in the wake of Ronson’s book: Jonah Lehrer faked Bob Dylan quotes, a dumb mistake, and he’s been punished.

If that were the whole story, then Payne would be right to say the “feeding frenzy” should be over. But Lehrer hasn’t owned his mistakes; he’s seized the facts, with a two-step sleight-of hand. First he makes his crimes seem insignificant—just five [or six] fabricated quotes, ginned up in a bout of laziness. Then he makes a show of puffing up his guilt over something trivial. (“I don’t want to just blame sloppiness,” he told Ronson. “It was sloppiness and deception. Sloppiness and lies. I lied to cover up the sloppiness.”) That’s the modus operandi of his comeback: Minimize the wrong; maximize the shame. These Dylan quotes may sound like no big deal to you, but they really matter, yes they do. I’m deeply sorry for what I’ve done ...

Two weeks ago, Lehrer put up an essay on his private blog: “The Power of Redemption Stories.” “The story of redemption is as American as apple pie,” he writes, and then, in a turn that’s worthy of his glory years, he delves into the social science of these narratives, citing papers from psychologists. What’s the gist of all this research? “For many people, these redemption narratives—even when they simplify the facts of life—help them live better lives.” Redemption stories make us more generous, he says, and better parents, and more engaged in our communities, and they give us better mental health.

I hope that Lehrer finds a way to fix his life, and that it makes him generous and happy. I hope he makes a living, writing books or otherwise. But there are rules to telling stories, even stories of redemption. You can’t fabricate forgiveness.

*Correction, April 1, 2015: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated that the football player designated as the “mike” receives instruction from the sidelines. That is not always the case.