Monday, August 06, 2012

New Yorker fires writer

This story was surprising:
A publishing industry that is notoriously ill-equipped to root out fraud. A magazine whose famed fact-checking department is geared toward print, not the Web. And a lucrative lecture circuit that rewards snappy, semi-scientific pronouncements, smoothly delivered to a corporate audience.

All contributed to the rise of Jonah Lehrer, the 31-year-old author, speaker and staff writer for The New Yorker, who then executed one of the most bewildering recent journalistic frauds, one that on Monday cost him his prestigious post at the magazine and his status as one of the most promising, visible and well-paid writers in the business.

An article in Tablet magazine revealed that in his best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Mr. Lehrer had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, one of the most closely studied musicians alive.
Lehrer's book was a No. 1 NY Times bestseller, and the biggest selling science-related book of the last year. I cited him here and here, and pointed out that he was using a bogus Einstein quote. Apparently he can get away with misquoting Einstein, but not Dylan. And no one cares that his theories about the mind don't make any sense, as it has employed Malcolm Gladwell for years to write similar nonsense.

Mark Liberman points out here and here that the New Yorker has a long history of employing writers who misquote people. Besides his examples, the magazine had a long mathematics article called Manifold Destiny in 2006 that seriously misrepresented several famous mathematicians, and the whole point of the article was wrong. There was a controversy about it, and the magazine refused to make a correction, saying that it had already been fact-checked. It seems clear that the New Yorker empleys people for writing style, not factual accuracy.

The New Yorker had previouly posted notices of regret (on science belief and choking articles) because Lehrer repeated some anecdotes. That was the crime of self-plagiarism, I guess. But no attention was paid to whether the content was correct. I can only assume that the magazine has some very strange journalism standards, it had some dislike for Lehrer. Maybe it is a Jewish, as it was a Jewish magazine that exposed him.

Update: I did not realize how many complaints there were about Lehrer getting the science wrong. See Psychology Today, Gene Expression, Last Psychiatrist, and The NY Times. It seems ridiculous to withdraw the book from the market because of a few undocumented Dylan quotes, when the substance of the book has so many more serious errors.

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