Jonah Lehrer: An American Tragedy

If you visit The New Yorker today you’ll notice under the ‘Most Popular’ sidebar widget a piece entitled An American Tragedy. Written by Naunihal Singh, this article compares the vast difference in the way [American] media have covered the recent Oak Creek Sikh temple massacre and the Dark Knight Rises movie premiere shootings occurring last month; the latter of the two high profile shootings receiving the lion’s share of media attention.

But I actually went onto The New Yorker Web site looking for a post written by Jonah Lehrer on his (now discontinued) Frontal Cortex blog. The post, Why Smart People Are Stupidreads like a different sort of American tragedy from the Wisconsin and Colorado shootings mentioned above. If you’re familiar with Jonah Lehrer’s recent string of doctored citations and self-plagiarism, one passage in particular, in what was his 2nd-last post for the prestigious magazine, jumps out at you:

“When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether. Asked about the bat and the ball [reference to a “simple arithmetic question” Lehrer poses earlier in the article], we forget our arithmetic lessons and instead default to the answer that requires the least mental effort.”

It’s incredible to think Lehrer wrote these words just a few months after pushing out his latest book Imagine: How Creativity Works —a book, it was found, containing several either partially cobbled-together or completely fictitious Bob Dylan quotations. Add to this more false information related to things magicians Penn and Teller never said, which also appear in the now infamous book.

At only 31-years of age Jonah Lehrer’s rapid fall from grace seems almost impossible to fathom. Here was a bright young guy with huge potential in the lucrative star-creative-big-idea-thinker-and-tie-it-back-to-neuroscience genre and was well on his way to becoming the next Malcolm Gladwell, by some estimates.

So here’s the funny thing. I was thinking about picking up Lehrer’s latest book Imagine. I love books on this wavelength (creativity, design thinking, big concepts) —your typical TED fare stuff. Yet now after reading Michael C. Moynihan’s detailed account of Lehrer’s journalistic concoctions in Imagine and also the bewildering pattern of self-plagiarism from articles Lehrer wrote for Wired, The Wall Street Journal, then later recycled into his blog over at The New Yorker (I’m willing to bet more incriminating evidence will surface in the coming months)I am, to say the very least, no longer interested in anything Jonah Lehrer has to say.