The science of psych

How Much Can Jonah Lehrer Be Reformed?

Can integrity be learned?

Last summer the writer Jonah Lehrer made headlines after a series of journalistic ethical infractions were uncovered: plagiarism, fabrication, deception of colleagues, at least one case of blaming an editor for his own mistake (and then repeating the mistake two more times)—basically doing the opposite of what journalism is. He has been mostly silent ever since. Today Lehrer gave a talk at a meeting for the Knight Foundation in which he apologized for his wrongs (or "mistakes") and attempted to explain them.

Early on, he cites his personal flaws: "my arrogance, my desire for attention, my willingness to take shortcuts provided I don't think anyone else will notice, my carelessness matched with an ability to excuse my carelessness away, my tendency to believe my own excuses." He says these are "a basic part of me. They are as fundamental to my self as those other parts I'm not ashamed of."

Then he explains his solution: "What I clearly need is a new set of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures." Specifically, fact checking and the recording of interviews. "To not have these procedures and processes in place is to expose myself to the possibility of indifference," he says. "It is to slip down a slope and not even notice."

First of all, good for him for diving deep. He has not shied from diagnosing, or at least publicly announcing, a set of "fundamental" flaws in his person: "arrogance," "carelessness," a noteworthy "indifference" to the truth. (I would not be surprised if there were also an element of mild psychopathy, suggested by his apparent readiness to manipulate others—colleagues and readers—for the sake of his "desire for attention." But I have never met him and have no training in psychiatry.)

And yes, given that these are constitutive flaws, the apparent solution would be to create external restraints. But is that enough? Will extra fact checking do the trick? No. A piece of journalism is more than a list of facts that can be checked. It's how those facts are arranged. It's how they're spun and colored. It's which facts are selected to begin with. You can tell a lot of untruths with true facts. It's not enough to trust the editor comparing written facts to pieces of source material. You also need to trust the writer moulding the overall story with those facts. And right now, particularly given Lehrer's admitted residence on a slippery "slope" toward falsehood, I do not trust him with the truth.

I have not read Lehrer's best-seller Imagine, but I've read a couple of reviews. In The New York Times, Christopher Chabris writes, "The nadir of his book’s logic is reached when even the anecdotes don’t support the conclusions Lehrer draws from them." This sounds like a more fundamental problem with an author's writing and thinking than can be adjusted with a few new operating procedures. And in The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner writes that "Lehrer’s slippery language is crucial to his method." He cites a line by Lehrer: “the young know less, which is why they often invent more.” How often? If you're telling a story about the power of fresh perspectives, "often" might suggest "usually," even if the truth is closer to "occasionally." And if you're a writer who's motivated, at core, to tell dramatic stories and share counterintuitive insights whether or not they're true so that you can get attention from the people around you who are not as smart as you are (Lehrer's expressed M.O.), you will use a lot of slippery language, words such as "often" will go unchecked, and readers will be deceived—albeit entertained. Granted, this description applies to many writers to some degree, but Lehrer more than most, at least at this level of visibility.

So in the short run, we have a fundamentally dishonest writer constrained by some new rules. Not promising. How about in the long run? Can those fundamental flaws be reformed? Can integrity be learned? If Lehrer spends years undergoing therapy and practicing his craft under strict supervision—perhaps in a private playpen with no vulnerable readers to harm—will he internalize journalistic norms? Will be become sufficiently humble and self-skeptical and curious about the complexities of the world? Will a new appreciation for truth be instilled? This I do not know. People can change, but in limited ways. If indeed there is an element of psychopathy, we're out of luck. But if Lehrer has enough empathy, and enough capacity for shame, he just might evolve, someday, into a journalist we can trust.


UPDATE: I asked Dan Ariely, the author of The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, if integrity could be learned. He said, in part, "If you think about my research on dishonesty, we find lots of people can cheat a little bit. And I've interviewed lots of big cheaters, people who do insider trading and accounting fraud and cheating in sports and all kinds of things, and all of those stories are not very different from Jonah, and almost all of them have realized the slippery slope they've gone down and have changed their lives dramatically." He added: "I don't think he is a psychopath, and I think he has and will learn from all of this and be a better journalist in the short and in the long run." So the slippery slope exists for many people, and it's possible to climb your way back up and use rules to stay there. But it's possible there are many icy faces to this mountain and barriers cannot be placed on all of them. There is still the question of whether avoiding the kind of lies and mistakes that can be easily caught will actually train you to not want to use the kind of deception you can easily get away with—that fuzzy logic and shifty wording mentioned above. 

ALSO: A friend who's a lawyer emailed me: "I love your example from the quote in his book using the word 'often.' It led me to think - rather than fact checkers, Lehrer should have lawyers to check his writing - because they routinely argue over whether to use often v. frequently v. sometimes v. usually - and those discussions are always too long and inevitably painful. Not only would it be a fitting punishment, but he would have to pay them hourly - and there would more than a few who would give him a run for his money in both ego and/or intelligence."

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.


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