Earlier today, the Slate website released this analysis of Jonah Lehrer’s work for Wired magazine and its website. Wired commissioned the analysis after previous work by Lehrer published elsewhere was revealed to have been plagiarized or recycled – but, according to the report’s author, Charles Seife, “Wired.com decided not to publish my full analysis of my findings”.
Several hours after the report was posted on Slate, Wired announced that its relationship with Lehrer has been severed.
Seife’s analysis is very thoughtful and well worth reading. And, unlike other critics of Lehrer’s work, Seife was given the opportunity to interview Lehrer about the issues with Lehrer’s writing. Seife’s description of the interview’s results is as follows:
Unfortunately, in the setup to the interview, Wired.com, which set the ground rules for the interview, didn’t make sufficiently clear that the discussion was not solely part of an internal investigation and that it could be made public. As a result, I can’t quote Lehrer or even paraphrase what he told me. But what I can say is that a number of his responses to my questions made me suspect that Lehrer’s journalistic moral compass is badly broken.
In short, I am convinced that Lehrer has a cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood. This shows not only in his attitude toward quotations but in some of the other details of his writing. And a journalist who repeatedly fails to correct errors when they’re pointed out is, in my opinion, exhibiting reckless disregard for the truth.
Seife cuts Lehrer a bit of slack in his conclusion by stating that when he (Seife) started his career, fact-checkers and editors could catch problems and “save us (public) embarrassment”. But Lehrer “rose to the very top in a flash, and despite having his work published by major media companies, he was operating, most of the time, without a safety net. Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him”. I can’t disagree with that – but, as I’ve stated before, Lehrer chose to enter journalism and chose the multifaceted, high-profile career path. That, in my opinion, is still not a reasonable justification for the ethical choices he made.