The Implosion of Jonah Lehrer

A couple of years ago Harvard announced an ongoing investigation of evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Marc Hauser for “scientific misconduct” involving the integrity of experimental data.  Hauser wrote books such as Moral Minds for a lay audience as well as numerous papers in academic journals co-authored with the likes of Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Richard Wrangham.  He resigned his professorship about a year later.

Now another public scientist and intellectual who also specialized in the behavioral sciences has fallen.  Jonah Lehrer was fired from his position at “The New Yorker” after admitting he fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.  I can only agree with his editor, David Remnick, that “This is a terrifically sad situation.”  Why someone as ostensibly successful and highly regarded as Lehrer would do such a thing is beyond my comprehension.

One must hope we’re not seeing the start of a trend.  I can think of few things more important than the credibility and integrity of the behavioral sciences, so lately emerged from the debacle of the Blank Slate.  It turns out Lehrer didn’t even need to invent the quotes in question.  According to Randy Lewis writing for the LA Times, Dylan actually did say substantially the same thing in an interview with pop music critic Robert Hilburn in 2004.  Quoting from Lewis’ article,

At one point, he told Hilburn something very close to what Lehrer seemed to have been after: “I’m not good at defining things,” Dylan said in 2004. “Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn’t. It’s up to the listener to figure out what it means to him.”

But he also did open up remarkably about how he viewed the art and craft of songwriting.

“I don’t think in lateral terms as a writer. That’s a fault of a lot of the old Broadway writers…. They are so lateral. There’s no circular thing, nothing to be learned from the song, nothing to inspire you. I always try to turn a song on its head. Otherwise, I figure I’m wasting the listener’s time.”

Had he been more thorough in doing the research for his book, perhaps Lehrer could have been able to hold onto the success he seemed so desperately to want that he concocted quotes from the greatest songwriter of the rock era.

It would be nice if the scientists who study our behavior and morality were themselves immune to the human frailties they write about.  Once again, we have seen that they most decidedly are not.  Those who seek Plato’s philosopher kings will have to keep looking.

Leave a Reply