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From my interview archive: disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer (2008 and 2009)

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

About a decade ago I came across an ad for a book called Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Intrigued, I looked it up and found that it dealt with the pre-modern-neuroscience neuroscientific revelations made by not just In Search of Lost Time but the paintings of Paul Cézanne, the writing of Virginia Woolf, the music of Igor Stravinsky, and the cooking of Auguste Escoffier. It struck me as the perfect kind of two-cultures material to discuss on The Marketplace of Ideas, which I’d just launched, so I asked for a press copy of the book and scheduled an interview with its author, a 26-year-old science writer by the name of Jonah Lehrer.

Six or so years later, Lehrer made what remains his most recent tweet, saying, “I’m deeply sorry for what I’ve done.” What did he do? I still don’t quite understand it myself, but it involved changing the occasional quoted word, lifting someone’s blog post, making up facts about Bob Dylan, acts of something called “self-plagiarism” — the sort of thing that shakes one’s confidence in a writer’s work, no doubt, but in this case it made Lehrer a pariah. He got in trouble for his book about “how creativity works” in 2012, by which time I’d ended The Marketplace of Ideas but also interviewed him twice already: about Proust (later judged as “without significant problems” and spared) and then about his next book How We Decide (judged as tainted by the revelations, and thus recalled and pulped along with the principally offending new book) the next year.

I’m not going to front like, in the grand total of two hours we talked, I could sense something “off” about Lehrer, an intangible tip of the iceberg of deceit below. In fact, I liked the guy and I liked his books — or at least I liked his first one and can’t remember much about the second. (He also once wrote a blog post comparing the structure of Los Angeles to the structure of the brain, which over a few years of my own early attempts to explain the city I sent around to more than a few people.) That doesn’t mean I don’t believe he deserved what he got, although I don’t really believe in desert at all. In a way, I can’t help but see the whole situation, this making an example of one sloppy writer by knocking him off the pedestal we put him on at such a young age, as a paroxysm of bad conscience in popular science writing as a whole.

Lehrer has long tended to attract the adjective “Gladwellian,” very seldom as a compliment. I suspect that he and Malcolm Gladwell’s circles of haters — those who champion hard, inconvenient facts over pat stories, or at least those who like to see themselves as doing so — overlap significantly, and it doesn’t surprise me that Gladwell has mildly defended Lehrer now and again since the latter’s fall. At least Lehrer doesn’t seem to have had it as bad as his fellow Angeleno Stephen Glass, who as an equally young journalistic star made up whole articles at The New Republic. That scandal even became a major motion picture, Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass, though I think far more often of Anthony Lane’s review than the movie itself:

Glass may be a rotten apple in the barrel, but the contention of Ray’s film is that the barrel itself, the noble calling of the reporter, is as sturdy and as polished as ever. Give me a break. On second thought, give me “His Girl Friday.” Five minutes of Howard Hawks’s speedy and cynical view of hacks in sharp suits, as they themselves bend the world to fit the shape of their own cynicism, is a more bracing sight than ninety-four minutes of Stephen Glass and his tragic slide from grace.