Liars, Cheats, and Writers: The Case of Jonah Lehrer

Fake quotes, fact-checking, and why human justice requires us to chase chickens.

Posted Jul 31, 2012

And so comes the news that rising star Jonah Lehrer has resigned from his position as staff writer at The New Yorker following revelations that he made up quotes in the name of Bob Dylan, and subsequently lied about doing so.

The New York Times points to a systems failure in explicating how Lehrer got away with this for so long: “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.”

Fair enough. But at the end of the day, it was Lehrer who cheated and then lied. Why did he?

To answer that question, I’d have to do what Lehrer seems to have done — get into the mind of the character about whom I’m writing, understand personality and motivation, style and psychological history, and then invent something believable about that character. I don’t have that much irony in me today.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to read the story of Lehrer’s downfall and to be reminded of Mike Daisey, the author of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a monologue Daisey passed off as non-fiction. The episode of This American Life exposing Daisey’s fabrications contains, as Lehrer’s story does, not only evidence of fictionalization, but of panicked lies on the road to being caught. (And of an absolutely disgusted editor.)

At some level, I can relate to Lehrer and Daisey. All we (putative) non-fiction writers want to tell a good story. And the best stories are told by those thoroughly immersed in their subject — in love with a topic, obsessed, absolutely driven. It’s just that kind of state, I think, that leads to making stuff up, the way your mind just does make stuff up when you’re in love, obsessed, absolutely driven.

And that, dear reader, is why fact-checking really exists.

Fact-checking doesn’t exist primarily because some of us are liars and cheats. It exists because writers will be writers, much as they may mean to be historians.

Perhaps it is because I’m a writer trained in history that I’ve always assumed I would make mistakes in my drafts. Historians know how faulty human memory can be.

I started in graduate school fact-checking my own work. Perhaps I got lucky when the first paper I remember fact-checking — my first conference presentation, on the history of the Human Genome Project — contained a glaring error that I caught while fact-checking. In my draft, I had quoted a scientist making an obnoxious offhand remark, evidencing what I took to be that particular scientist’s cheap commercialism of the genome. But when I went back to check the quote, the context actually made clear the remark was sarcastic — that the scientist was arguing against commercialization.

After that, I never trusted myself. I traced every claim. My dissertation contained a story of a Victorian hermaphroditic chicken that, when I went to check the quote from the primary source, I couldn’t find. I spent two days simply looking for one nineteenth-century British quote about one hermaphroditic chicken, knowing full well nobody was ever going to check me on this. (I did finally find the quote, in another primary source, and corrected the reference. Thereafter, within my household, I referred to days spent fact-checking as “looking for hermaphroditic chickens.”)

I just finished a book manuscript which I now needs complete, line-by-line fact-checking — a huge job that will take me a month or two of doing nothing else. Friends and colleagues have asked me, “Why do you do that? The press will surely do it.” But as my own experiences and Lehrer’s and countless others’ show, the press won’t surely do it. And in my line of work — calling people out on their B.S. — I can’t afford to make a mistake.

But it isn’t just that professionally I can’t afford to make mistakes. Psychologically I can’t, either. I feel like the ghosts of the Founding Fathers are counting on me not to ever pass off fiction as non-fiction.

Because democracy depends on justice, and justice depends on accuracy.

In reading of Lehrer, I’ve been cringing as I’ve had to read yet another round of journalistic reporting on how “famous” The New Yorker’s fact-checking department is. I know from my own work of a major fictional smear that David Remnick (yes, the very editor now actively spanking Lehrer) let go early in his tenure as a piece of “journalism.”

I’m referring to the pseudo-journalist Patrick Tierney’s 2000 New Yorker account of the doings of the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the late geneticist-physician James Neel. You can read the story of that fiasco here

Just after I was interviewed for a New Yorker article a few years ago — a very fine piece by Ariel Levy on sex-testing in sports — the fact-checking department called me. Ironically, I was at Chagnon’s house, checking some material for my own work on his story. He laughed bitterly when I told him who was on the phone. Imagine, he had said to me as I was stepping out of his home office to take the call, if they’d actually checked what Tierney had written about him.

I’m told it is not a coincidence that, since I helped last year to correct the record marred by The New Yorker, Chagnon has finally this year been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

But in spite of cases like Daisey, Lehrer, and Tierney, more often than not, no fact-checker calls me. Over 95 percent of the time, nobody but me checks my work, and nobody checks the news articles in which I’m quoted. Even before the rise of the internet, few hermaphroditic chickens were chased, and even fewer are now, as “new media” has financially crushed publication houses and presses. I was recently told by a media outlet for which I sometimes write that I can’t do investigative pieces for them because they don’t have the manpower to do the fact-checking required. (I guess I should be happy that they admit that?)

A few exceptions do exist; a hard-hitting article I just published with two colleagues in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry seems to have gone through some independent fact-checking; I surmise this from the editors contacting me, during the publication process, to say they could not verify some material because it came from sources they could not obtain. (I provided them the sources.)

But more often than not, nobody checks a manuscript line-by-line. Since the Daisey story, I’ve asked many an academic if they do what I do — check their work, line-by-line, before publication — and they all seem to tilt their heads and say, “No ... but I’m sure I get the material right.”

Given all this, it seems more important than ever that we judge putative non-fiction writers like Lehrer and Daisey on their records of accuracy. Today, holding writers accountable may be the only system of checks and balance we have left. Much as I hate to see someone as smart, talented, and thoughtful as Jonah Lehrer disappear into obscurity, the Tierney-Chagnon story really brings home the lesson of how justice depends on accuracy and accountability.

To tolerate making stuff up is, in the end, to allow writers to erode justice in the service of their own careers. That’d be a story with an ugly ending. Right?