Jonah Lehrer: a weird old trick that melts belly fat and makes 54-year old mom look 27!

Modern publishing: just a sausage party.

From the “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is” file:

Two weeks after disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer publicly apologized for the “frailties” and “weaknesses” that lead to his firing from The New Yorker and withdrawal of his bestselling book Imagine, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), publisher of all three of Lehrer’s books, has decided it will no longer offer for sale his second book, How We Decide. After an internal review uncovered significant problems with the book, the publisher is “taking How We Decide off-sale” and has “no plans to reissue it in the future,” HMH senior vice president Bruce Nichols said in an email.

HMH, who pulled Imagine from shelves in July and offered refunds to those who had purchased the book, will “shortly alert accounts about How We Decide and offer to refund returns” from customers, Nichols said. He also noted that the company’s review of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Lehrer’s first book, did not uncover any problems and that it “will remain in print.”

Nichols didn’t reveal the specifics of HMH’s findings, but shortly after the company withdrew Imagine I privately provided them with a handful of problematic passages, gleaned from a cursory look at How We Decide.

HA-hahahahahaha!  The author of this article, Michael Moynihan, goes on to reveal that his “cursory look” at How We Decide probably involved no more than a simple Google search of Lehrer’s prose and a look at Wikipedia.  That’s right:  the world’s most obvious undergraduate-style plagiarist was getting paid to write for The New Yorker and publishing books with HMH.  Most of you professor types probably would have found him out a lot sooner if he were trying to pass his stuff off on you than his editors or readers did.

Of course this makes sense, because how else could someone who is only 31 have written three books based on original research and write for so many different prestigious publications, too?  I’ve never written about him before because 1) I never thought he or his work was all that interesting to begin with, and 2) I couldn’t believe the credulousness of major editors and publishers in believing that he was actually producing all of that original journalism without plagiarizing and/or recycling a lot of his own work.

Anyone who has any actual expertise in anything knows that honest reporting and original writing takes a hell of a lot more time than Lehrer has ever put in, with perhaps the exception of plagiarism and auto-recycling.  Maybe this means that big-time editors and publishers in fact have no expertise, and so have no hard-won internal bull$hit detector?  Maybe this means that they were selling the wunderkind fantasy as much as his (not-very-interesting “Gee Whiz”) books and articles, as well as fooling themselves? Maybe the fact that most of them are white, male, and middle-aged made many of them believe that Lehrer reminded them of themselves back when they were his age?

It might be all of the above.  As far as I’m concerned, Jonah Lehrer is the perfect “journalist” of the internet age, with a con so great that he could actually get intelligent people to click on those unbelievably stupid internet ads promising to “melt stubborn belly fat with one weird old trick” or share the secrets of the “54-year old (Your Town Here) mom [who] looks 27!”

Maybe it’s true.  Yeah, it could be true!  Why not believe that the fountain of youth is just a click away on an internet ad?  I’d sooner believe that than believe that Jonah Lehrer had 3 books’ worth of anything original or interesting to say.

19 thoughts on “Jonah Lehrer: a weird old trick that melts belly fat and makes 54-year old mom look 27!

  1. Having been to law school and taken law school ethics, I really don’t think ethics can be taught. I think there will always be people who try to game the system. Plagiarizing is both easier and more difficult now– easier because of instant access to other people’s work but harder because anyone can google search your work and find plagiarized quotes. I think the internet has just created more opportunities to plagiarize and made it more likely that those plagiarizing, especially with increased popularity and exposure, will be caught.


  2. I’ve never used Turnitin (and I’ve possibly lost a few plain cases of plagiarism that way) but usually a good old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants Google search with a string of suspiciously polished prose phrases will do the trick. As a reader, I try to avoid books that have subtitles beginning with “how” or “why” in any case, and at least hesitate if the publishing company has a name that looks like a ten car pile-up of *actual* publishers founded in Boston, New York, or London in the nineteenth century, and merged by some German conglomerate in the last few decades. But while I’m carping, has Moynihan joined the rush to use the word “lead” as having both a present and past-tense role to describe something happening subsequent to and as a consequence of something else? That’s another teeth-grinder when I’m working through a stack of student stuff that has materialized, over-the-transom, a day after it’s due.


  3. I find criticising the ‘self-plaigerism’ and ‘recycling’ kind of interesting, because academics do this ALL THE TIME. Many of our books contain whole chapters that have been substantially published elsewhere as articles, even if we do usually stick a one line attribution in the acknowledgements. While even more generally, most of us try out our ideas in journals before they reappear (if with different examples or broader context) in our final books. PLUS there is a whole market out there of people whose blogs became books, often with quite minimal revision or ‘new content’.

    So, while I think that it’s fair game to criticise making up quotations, stealing other people’s words and ideas, and the derivitive, poorly researched and rather dull content, in repackaging his ideas for a quick sale, he’s not doing much different from the rest of us.

    And, as a final comment, is 31 really so young to produce 3 new research books? I think this is becoming more common, especially with the publish or perish dynamic of modern academia. Especially if we count books aimed at a popular market, which don’t have to be quite so rigorous or even imaginative. There was an article a while back interviewing a group of precocious Cambridge Uni humanities PhDs who had published both their academic monographs and a number of popular histories before 30. It was asking whether this the future of the discipline.


  4. I suppose someone could write 3 books before age 31. But would you want to read them? I sure wouldn’t.

    I disagree that his “recycling” was in bounds. Academic journals, which pay us zero for the privilege of publishing our work, usually go to great lengths to make the author promise that no part of the work has ever been published before. I think that most people think it’s OK to include portions of previously published material in a book, but that’s because we’re *scholars*, and we presumably have learned something in the process of testing our ideas in public, as well as have continued to read and learn in our own fields & so may revise some of our previous conclusions.

    Lehrer is not a scholar. He has contempt for scholarly values. But more importantly, he wasn’t up front about his recycling, which also shows contempt for fair play as well as the fair market value for his writing.


  5. I guess I just like to fantasise that if I’d been a little bit more productive I would have got my 2nd and 3rd books out before 31 (they’re being written concurrently and so are slowing each other down). This is no longer possible, but I don’t intend to be far off it. And I hope that somebody will read them. [For the record, I have no plans to plaigerise anybody, not even myself]. I also don’t think I’m hugely unusual in a UK context.


  6. In defense of turnitin, it has a couple of great tools for grading. You can also allow students to see their match score, which helps those kids who tend to undercite/underresearch but not plagiarize (why is your match score only 5%?) as well as those that aren’t plagiarizing (everything is cited properly) but not doing enough original thinking (why is your match score 75%?).


  7. Part of what probably made this less detectable to editors because of the ways in which the industry is ripping itself off all the time anyway. There is, for example, very little original journalism or original fiction left in the New Yorker. While I still take it, and still enjoy a lot of what is published there, most of the content is “placements” for books that are in press or will be in press in the near future. The New Yorker rarely publishes a true short story anymore: it is usually a discreet chunk of a new novel. And the nonfiction is nearly always a book in progress, or a preview intended to market a book release. The Atlantic is even worse: I noticed a terrific new book about bullying at our local indy book shop and was thinking about buying it; lo, the essence of the book has been repurposed as a cover story for the Atlantic.

    And so on.

    In many ways the publishing industry is creating its own disasters by the way it markets authors and books through recycling, and by the way it has outsourced editorial functions to agents. Agents have a stake in producing bright young things who put out a series of short, shiny-covered, topical books, rather than the workmanlike authors who publish a well-researched book every 5-6 years. Agents don;t care about a good backlist (which has been abandoned by many publishers as a concept anyway.) Where is the extraordinarily well-read editor who would smell a fish early on? Either working in academic publishing or not in publishing at all.


  8. Not to be an ass, but I think you mean ‘discrete chunk.’ Sorry — figured you’d want the correction (where many others wouldn’t); hopefully you can take that as a compliment. 🙂

    Interesting discussion otherwise. I don’t mind the novel chunks instead of true short stories, personally. Not sure I see a distinction between that and publishing a short story that will eventually be reprinted as part of a collection. But then, my last book was a set of linked short stories, a couple of which were previously published elsewhere as stand-alones; as far as I know, none of the readers (of either magazine or book) minded.


  9. “This books borrows from some of these past publications but in ways that will often be unrecognizable. I have drawn my thoughts together here from into a new argument about the depoliticization of women’s and gender history, the loss of historical and depth in feminist scholarship, the critical perspectives afforded by a long view of the history of women and gender and the importance of studying what I call a “patriarchal equilibrium.” In this process of rethinking and revision, I have formulated some new ideas and text, and I have sometimes freely self-plagiarized from previously published articles.” – Judith Bennett

    Seven years later, I will be teaching a senior seminar in the fall in which we will be spending two weeks on Bennett’s book. Is there any critical bibliography that I should hit that has arisen in the time (the last four years) since I last taught her book?


  10. I did indeed mean discrete — no harm, no foul. I guess the difference I see, and I am not a fiction writer (but I did major in English!) is that a short story is a form, with a an autonomous and distinct structure. Thus, while a colleciton has a certain shape, each story within it has a complete trajectory, character development and narrative. Book chapters rely more heavily on their larger context: thus, printing an excerpt as if it were a short story (which is what the New Yorker does, as it slid into this practice without actually identifying what they were doing) seems sleazy to me.


  11. Mostly I agree (although it’s possible he’s got a housekeeper/nanny/cook so he CAN work 20 hours a day?).

    But I disagree w/your characterization of publishing folks at white, male, middle-aged. Nyet. Certainly not at HMH (full disclosure: I am also published by HMH. But I’m not a plagiarist.) The corridors there are full of young, white, women. And THAT, frankly, may have more to do with how JL got into the system than anything else.


  12. Interesting point, Maureen!

    I guess I’m thinking about all of the white men in leadership positions: editor of NYRB, the Times book review section, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the entire masthead of The New Republic (almost), etc. Leadership matters.


  13. I’m going to go WAY out on a limb here — but I also disagree w/Tenured Radical’s take. I’ve been involved in “mainstream” publishing since leaving academia in 1999.

    My experience has been that there are plenty of both agents and editors who want that well-researched book. I just finished my new book (like: two days ago) that I’ve been working on since 2006. The book before that took five years. The one before that either two or three (can’t remember).

    I have a conventional agent and work with a plain ol’ editor — and no one’s complained about the long time frame.

    I think it’s difficult to generalize about the publishing industry. Presumably there are those looking for The Next Big Thing. But: it’s not nearly so full of evil dumbasses as the rest of the world seems to think. Indeed, I’ve encountered few dumbasses. Mostly it’s a lot of people who love reading, writing, and ideas.


  14. My monocle almost fell out when I read excerpts from Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Some guy who could barely get out of bed and wrote about smelly remembrances should be seen as a forefather to modern brain science? George Eliot should get a Nobel Prize in chemistry because her characters grew and changed? Huh? What’s next, Picasso as a quantum physicist because he colored outside the lines?

    Look, it’s one thing for a medical student on a first date to claim that he is “kind of a historian” so that he can . . . uh . . . hold hands. But the premise and execution of this book was ludicrous and an insult to artists and scientists everywhere.


  15. Pingback: Prikipedia? Looking for the Women on Wikipedia - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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