I’ve been a fan of sorts of Jonah Lehrer, the 14-ish looking writer from Wired and more recently The New Yorker. His book Proust was a Neuroscientist was a great and informative read–highly original I thought.
A few weeks ago there was a kerfluffle about Lehrer and plagiarism. It was self-plagiarism that was the accusation in that he was using his own material and selling it multiple times. Now I didn’t take this too seriously as one could see it as efficient if not quite ethical. So I bought on kindle his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.
Another good read but I was troubled. Knowing in the back of my head about accusations of plagiarism, it seemed Lehrer was going out of his way to justify stealing content from others as part of the creative process. Here’s an example regarding Shakespeare:
“But Shakespeare didn’t just read these texts and imitate their best parts; he made them his own, seamlessly blending them together in his plays. Sometimes the literary approach got Shakespeare into trouble. His peers repeatedly accused him of plagiarism, and he was often guilty, at least by contemporary standards. What these allegations failed to take into account, however, was that Shakespeare was pioneering a new creative method in which every conceivable source informed his art. For Shakespeare, the act of creation was inseparable from the act of connection.”
Lehrer says earlier: “He [Shakespeare] never stopped stealing from Marlowe.”
Lehrer, it seems, fashions himself sort of a new Shakespeare who is pioneering a new creative method. Because yesterday he resigned from his new position at The New Yorker because of allegations that he made up a lot of the stuff he wrote about Bob Dylan in this book. He has admitted to making up quotes and then when questioned lying about the sources of those. Even his admissions seem full of contradictions and untruth.
It is ironic that the major theme of Imagine about creativity is the collaborative process, the use of many sources, the interactions between people. But Lehrer clearly has lost his way. Somehow he seems to think that his gifts in writing, storytelling and crafting good and valuable explanations for how things work justifies his taking shortcuts and, well let’s call it what it is, lying.
He is wrong, and while I am very sorry to see such a talent wasted, until and unless he comes to grips with a fundamental ethical and moral flaw all the talent in the world means nothing. Good luck getting another book published, or getting suckers to read it and believe anything in it.
Is there a lesson for crisis communicators here? I think so. Credibility is everything. No amount of good your organization is doing can justify deception or anything less than full, open, transparent honesty. You might be saving the world, you might be rescuing the lost, you might be feeding the starving, you might be on the path to nirvana–nothing matters if you aren’t telling the truth. Lehrer, of course, is German for teacher. Let Jonah be your teacher on this.