Am I the only one who feels bad for Jonah Lehrer? The disgraced science writer, who lost his staff writer job at the New Yorker — and, quite possibly, his career — last summer after it was revealed that he had made up quotes (by Bob Dylan, of all people) in his book “Imagine,” was back in the news this week after giving a talk at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar; for the 3,500 word lecture, he received a payment of $20,000.
Reaction has been uniformly negative, with pointed posts in the New York Times, Forbes and Los Angeles Magazine. But while I don’t necessarily disagree with such commentary, I also think it misses the point.
Lehrer’s talk, after all, may come framed as a mea culpa (“I’m going to focus today on bad decisions,” he told the audience, “on the causes and repercussions of failure. The failure I’ll be talking about is my own”), but it reveals someone who is more than a little pathological, who hasn’t come to terms with what he’s done.
That’s sad, tragic even, for Lehrer was a talented journalist, a science writer with real insights into creativity and how the brain works. I learned things from his books “How We Decide” and “Imagine” (the latter of which has been withdrawn from publication), and Lehrer’s indiscretions haven’t taken that away.
This is not meant as a defense; what he did was indefensible. But reading his speech, which casts his misdeeds as “errors” rather than dishonesty, I can’t help thinking that he has deceived no one so much as himself.
You won’t find that idea expressed in much of what’s been written about the lecture: “It was a wild display of self-negation, of humble arrogance and arrogant humility,” wrote Daniel Engber in Slate, while Poynter’s Craig Silverman called it “all too familiar, and worst of all I think Lehrer is completely ignorant of the fact that he fell into his old methods, his old practices, as he worked to try and understand why he did what he did.”
True enough. But then, this is who he is.
Most egregious was the Knight Foundation, which late Wednesday evening posted a statement saying that “paying a speaker’s fee was inappropriate,” and that they regretted the mistake. This is the height of hypocrisy, since Knight had to know what it was getting into, and went ahead with the lecture anyway.
And that’s the point. We live in a culture defined by sanctimony, in which we react to people’s flaws, their failings, not with compassion but disdain. What did we expect from Lehrer? And why did we expect anything at all? Like every one of us, he is a conflicted human, his own worst enemy, but you’d hardly know that from the pile-on provoked by his talk.
Did Jonah Lehrer betray us? I don’t think so. But in our response to him, I’d suggest, we betray something about ourselves.