Jonah Lehrer Lied to Us All, and this is Why that Matters

This is about the betrayal of the author Jonah Lehrer.

This may sound strange, but the thing I may miss the most from preaching every Sunday (I left that profession years ago), is reading Scripture aloud.  I loved reading Scripture aloud.  I’m not sure why.  But I did – and I miss it.

Maybe it is because I so honor the very idea of a sacred text.

Before you interpret a text, you make sure that you understand the text.
To understand the text, you have to assume (you have to trust) that the text is “the text.”
And in interpreting a text, you have to make sure that you are staying faithful to the intent and message of the author – and then, and only then, can you “springboard” from the text to talk about lessons and implications for this audience, in this time.

It all revolves around the sanctity of the text.

These were the guiding principles undergirding my preaching for twenty years, and though I readily admit that a business book is not such sacred text, I still try to follow these guidelines.  When I present a business book synopsis, I am very careful with the text of the author.  I quote extensively, reading quotes taken directly from the book, because that is the clearest and most sure path to letting the author speak.  And my belief is that a business book synopsis is just that – a synopsis of the content of the author(s) himself/herself.

Yes, of course, I realize that I have to be “faithful” in putting and keeping the quotes in proper context.  I can’t lift phrases out in such a way to change or manipulate the meaning.   And, inevitably, I leave key parts out – ideas that if the author were present, he or she would yell “why did you leave that out?!”  Otherwise, I would just read the entire book aloud — thus, not a synopsis, but a performance.  (And, even then, there would be “interpretation” – “oral interpretation”).

But I do my best to let the author speak – to let the text itself speak.  Thus, I work hard to say, with every presentation, “this is what the author himself/herself has to say to us.”  That is my job.

(There is a second task — that of criticism.  Once we are clear about what a book says, then a good book reviewer, a book critic, like our blogging colleague Bob Morris, can tell us if the book is good, right, well-written, clear.  Of course, my very selection of a volume reveals that I think it has valuable insight.  But I am less a “critic” and more of a “spread the word, this is what the book has to offer, book briefer.”  I think these are connected roles, but slightly different.  They of course overlap.).

But… if I view text as sacred, then in my world, a faked text, a fabricated text, a made-up text is a sin of the highest order.

Jonah Lehrer is guilty of a sin of the highest order.

Jonah Lehrer made up quotes by Bob Dylan, lied about his source on these quotes (there was no source!), plagiarized Malcolm Gladwell, and I would not be surprised if he fabricated and stole from others in other ways yet to be discovered.

{And he “recycled” his own work, which is the least objectionable of the charges.  (Aaron Sorkin does this with some frequency – and I like it when he does it).}

You can read about Lehrer’s wrongdoing here, and here is his own statement:

“The lies are over now,” he said. “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”
He added, “I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”

He has admitted his wrongdoing.  And he has resigned from The New Yorker.  And the publisher is pulling the books from the shelves, and the digital version also.

I presented my synopsis of his book Imagine:  How Creativity Works, at the May, 2012 First Friday Book Synopsis.  I thought it was a terrific book.  But I now feel betrayed, as should every reader.  My comprehensive handout of this book, with the audio recording of my presentation, has been available at our companion website,  I have sent my request to our webmaster to remove it from our offerings.

Though I do apologize to those who heard my synopsis, or read earlier blog posts that I wrote from this book, I can say that I really am at the mercy of the authors I read.  If they fabricate, if they lie, if they plagiarize, how am I to know?  In other words, a writer, a speaker has a sacred obligation to a reader and listener.  That obligation is to be truthful.  To write truthfully, to speak truthfully.  To tell the truth.  To never plagiarize, to never fabricate.  To not make stuff up.  Here is Susan Scott, on one obligation of a leader, from her book Fierce Leadership:

Do not, under any circumstances, tell a lie – of either commission or omission.  Do not stretch the truth, exaggerate, or make stuff up (she actually used a little stronger word than “stuff”) to get out of trouble or make yourself look good…

Jonah Lehrer has betrayed our trust.  I do not plan on reading him again any time soon.  Can he be “restored” to a position of credibility?  I don’t know.  I am aware that some pretty respected authors and journalists have been guilty of something similar:  Doris Kearns Goodwin (read about her plagiarism here); Nina Totenberg (She was fired from the National Observer for plagiarism.  From the Wikipedia pageIn 1995, Totenberg told the Columbia Journalism Review, “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.”), to name a couple.  So maybe there will come a time…

But this I promise to my listeners.  I will treat text with honesty.  I do not make stuff up.  I try to let the text speak.

But I have to rely on the credibility of the text.

That is why I feel so betrayed by Jonah Lehrer.  And so should we all.

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