Here’s what we thought we knew about Jonah Lehrer: Only 31 years old and dweebishly handsome—nerd-hip Clark Kent glasses below a flop of hair—he wasn’t just clever; he was supremely prolific. In addition to writing for Wired, the temple of wonk, he was contributing to The New Yorker, bantering expertly with Stephen Colbert, and “appearing” on Radiolab, the NPR show that explains everything in a darling kind of way. Armed with an Ivy League degree in neuroscience, Lehrer had a brain that clearly functioned at a higher level than other people’s, propelling him to pop-intellectual stardom in less than a decade.
More than a mere scribbler, Lehrer was a brilliant personality who soothed us with his easy command of the very complex. He wrote best-selling books—first 2007’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, then two others in rapid succession. Encountering Lehrer in his off-hours only cemented the impression that he was, indeed, living the life—hiking Runyon Canyon in the afternoons with his pretty wife and sweet-faced baby,
returning (fitter than when they began) to their expensive architectural gem of a house once owned by the photographer Julius Shulman. By example, Lehrer seemed to prove that youth is more vigorous, there is an explanation for everything, and you really can have it all.
At least that was the story line until this summer. First, in July Lehrer admitted to (and apologized for) plagiarizing himself by repurposing some of his past work in supposedly fresh blog posts for The New Yorker. Many journalists saw this as a misdemeanor (one likened it to stealing food from your own refrigerator). A few weeks later, though, Lehrer was approached by Michael C. Moynihan, a writer and editor who was doing a piece for Tablet, an online magazine that calls itself “A New Read on Jewish Life.” Moynihan, a self-described aficionado of all things Bob Dylan, had discovered a couple of unfamiliar quotes from the legendarily press-shy bard in the first chapter of Lehrer’s latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Since Lehrer acknowledged he’d never interviewed Dylan, Moynihan wanted to know where the quotes came from. The answer, it turned out, was Lehrer’s imagination.
It wasn’t as if Lehrer’s faux quotes were especially juicy. Mostly he altered or fused together existing statements uttered in other contexts to support his thesis. For instance, Lehrer had Dylan sum up the creative process this way: “It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say.” Dylan never said that. In another passage Lehrer took a remark Marianne Faithfull had made to a writer (referring to how Dylan responded—“a little tantrum of genius”—to her rebuffing his romantic advances) and altered its meaning: Lehrer said Dylan was frustrated by songwriting, not by women.
Moynihan reported that when Lehrer finally stopped dodging him and sending him down blind alleys, the author fessed up. “I couldn’t find the original sources,” Lehrer said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.” But after Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker and his publisher pulled Imagine off the shelves, umbrage in the Twittersphere only grew. Jonah Lehrer was an imposter! A pretender! An actor! Instead of breaking with L.A. stereotypes (it had felt good to say the City of Angels had a resident big thinker, its own Malcolm Gladwell), he turned out to be fulfilling them with so much fakery. Not even his “crime” showed much creativity.
That’s what is puzzling: Lehrer must have known he’d likely be found out. Making up Dylan quotes is the journalistic equivalent of poking a stick into a hive of angry bees. When plotting a deception of this sort, wouldn’t it have been prudent to quote someone completely obscure? Or someone with logorrhea, whose words are nearly impossible to track because of their sheer volume? Choosing an icon who rarely gives interviews, each of them the subject of worshipful study by his fans, seems pathologically self-destructive. It reminds me of a remark an LAPD officer made about how, if criminals were true masterminds, they probably wouldn’t be resorting to lawbreaking in the first place. His colleagues’ term for this knack people have for making such revealing and incriminating mistakes? “Felony stupid.”
Depending on which analysis you read after Lehrer’s fall, his falsification and decontextualization of Dylan quotes was evidence of the culture’s overvaluing of genius, or of big ideas that explain things too simply, or of wunderkinds in general. There were observations about hubris and schadenfreude. There were grim tweets that illustrated both. (“Jonah Lehrer is a modern day Icarus. Flew too close to Gladwell,” read one from the blog the Native Angeleno, referring to Lehrer’s colleague at The New Yorker.) There were Web essays from Salon and Slate and Forbes and The Atlantic about how ironic it was that magazines fact-check material while book publishers don’t, about how the cult of “boy wonders” such as Lehrer bespeaks an underlying sexism in magazine and book publishing, and about how hard it is to do the basic work of real journalism.
By the time the inevitable interviews appeared with Gladwell (“I am heartbroken”) and with Jayson Blair (the infamous former fabulist reporter for The New York Times speculated on Lehrer’s probable “relief” at getting caught), the frenzy had already been nicely captured by Tyler Dukes, the managing editor of Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab. Dukes tweeted a picture that he headlined “Everything being written about @JonahLehrer right now, all summed up.” It was a photo of Gene Wilder as the top-hatted, purple suit-wearing Willy Wonka, with this caption: “No, please. Tell me more about how Jonah Lehrer’s downfall fits your preconceived narrative about what’s wrong with media culture.”