Jonah Lehrer’s Mea Sorta Culpa

His problem cannot be solved with “standard operating procedures.”

Jonah Lehrer talks about plagiarism at a lunch at the Knight Foundation on Feb. 12 in Miami, Fla.

Jonah Lehrer talking about his own journalistic misdeeds at the Knight Foundation on Tuesday.

Courtesy of Knight Foundation/

“I need rules,” said Jonah Lehrer earlier today during a speech at the Knight Foundation that broke nearly every rule of propriety and good taste. (The plagiarist and fabulist received a $20,000 mea-culpa fee for his troubles.) “What I clearly need is a new list of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures,” he went on, referring to those advanced principles of journalism—don’t lie, don’t plagiarize, et cetera—that he neglected in the past. But that dark time is over now: Lehrer has been humbled, and Lehrer has been reformed.

Lehrer has been humbled, and yet nearly every bullet in his speech managed to fire in both directions. It was a wild display of self-negation, of humble arrogance and arrogant humility. What are these “standard operating procedures” according to which Lehrer will now do his work? He says he’ll be more scrupulous in his methods—even recording and transcribing interviews(!)—but in the same breath promises that other people will be more scrupulous of him. “I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong,” he said, as if to blame his adoring crowds for past offenses.* Then he promised that all his future pieces would be fact-checked, which is certainly true but hardly indicative of his “getting better” (as he puts it, in the clammy, familiar rhetoric of self-help).

What remorse Lehrer had to share was couched in elaborate and perplexing disavowals. He tried to explain his behavior as, first of all, a hazard of working in an expert field. Like forensic scientists who misjudge fingerprints and DNA analyses, and whose failings Lehrer elaborated on in his speech, he was blind to his own shortcomings. These two categories of mistake hardly seem analogous—lab errors are sloppiness, making up quotes is willful distortion—yet somehow the story made Lehrer out to be a hapless civil servant, a well-intentioned victim of his wonky and imperfect brain.

Another story, about the FBI’s railroading of Brandon Mayfield, the lawyer in Portland, Ore. who was falsely imprisoned for the train bombings in Madrid, had a similar effect. Lehrer meant to liken himself to the benighted federal agents—men and women who tried to catch a criminal but were flummoxed by their faulty science and flawed procedures. (Not standard enough!) If the FBI could be reformed with a better set of rules, Lehrer said, then so could he. The story gave him hope. Yet Lehrer is not the FBI, and his journalistic crimes were not so much the product of a reckless system or a broken science than of his deliberate circumnavigation of established norms.

The Mayfield story was so irrelevant to Lehrer’s case, in fact, that I couldn’t help but wonder if he had another motive for its telling. Perhaps it was the cruel and mindless prosecution of an innocent man that brought the anecdote to mind. Did Lehrer dwell on Mayfield because he feels he is a Mayfield? Or did he tell the story so as to coax his audience into having the same idea? Maybe he was trying to employ a well-known cognitive bias—the priming effect, it’s called—in his own defense.

That wasn’t the only moment at which Lehrer’s presentation fluttered between self-flagellation and sleight-of-hand. Lehrer promised “a literal reconstruction of [his] mistakes,” but his enumeration whitewashed some of the most serious among them. He said he’d fabricated Bob Dylan quotes, and that he’d pinned a poster of the singer to his wall, to remind him of what he’d done. But wasn’t that the least of his offenses, anyway—just a dumb mistake that happened to have tripped him up? He also acknowledged plagiarizing on his blog (by taking one paragraph from another writer), and lying to Michael Moynihan about these slip-ups. There was no mention of the many other instances of fraud and plagiarism and misreporting that have been uncovered in the months since his disgrace. What about Seth Mnookin’s claim that Lehrer deliberately, obviously, and knowingly gussied up anecdotes from Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails, and then self-plagiarized his own deceptions? Or Daniel Bor’s claim that Lehrer misrepresented A. R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist, then blamed his editor for the error, then repeated the error elsewhere? There are plenty of other examples to choose from; these two just stick out in my mind as being especially egregious.

Could a set of “standard operating procedures” really make a liar mend his ways? Could it help to save his soul? Lehrer’s repeated invocation of that phrase didn’t make me trust him any more than I did yesterday, but it did make me think instead of the Errol Morris movie of the same name—a documentary on the abuses of Abu Ghraib, and how a lapse in ethics can be reconstructed and rationalized as adherence to the rules.

Correction, Feb. 12, 2013: The original implied that Jonah Lehrer had given talks to adoring crowds at TED. He has never given a TED talk. (Return.)