I read with a mixture of despair and cynicism the story of Jonah Lehrer’s stumble from public grace – despair because this was another in a line of confirmations that something has a hard time becoming noteworthy in the media today until it is sexed up, cynicism because some part of me sneered that Lehrer’s kind of meteoric success is often too good to be true.

As I continue to think and write about it, my cynicism starts to dissolve, but the despair remains. I first came to know of Lehrer a couple of months ago through my sister who recommended that I read his book, How We Decide, which she had liked a lot. Michael Moynihan, who brought to light the fact that Lehrer fabricated some quotes and attributed them to Bob Dylan, thinks that this may not be an isolated case. Having made a cursory examination of How We Decide, he reports that there may be more fake interviews and fabricated quotations there. My sister will be sad when she finds this out. I do hope to read the book someday, though it will certainly be through a different lens given this week’s events.

It is easy to see how we become conditioned by such experiences. Lehrer’s problem now is that whatever he writes in the future – even if it is the most honest and thoroughly researched piece imaginable – he has planted in our mind permanent seeds of doubt that he is powerless to stop from germinating. Sam Harris wrote a blog post about this affair, and pointed readers to a pertinent essay – in the form of a very short book – called Lying that he (Harris) wrote recently. Like his Letter to a Christian Nation, it gets straight to the point, is insightful and very much worth reading and thinking about.

3 thoughts on “Lying”

  1. Irkwood, huh? 🙂 Lehrer’s downfall is all kinds of depressing. He has been laying really low but I hope he speaks up about it sometime and explains why he did what he did.

  2. I thought that first article was very interesting. Why is it okay for Bob Dylan to fabricate but not Jonah Lehrer? Well, I think on the one hand, we live in very different times, ones that are keen to police strictly, whereas what Dylan did might well have been called ‘playful’ in the 70s. But I think it’s worth considering what it means to be a wunderkind in today’s culture. It must be a huge amount of pressure, and pressure to produce a great deal. I’m not saying it was ok for Lehrer to fabricate, only that if he hadn’t been under such pressure to achieve, and felt able to take his time, to build up a reputation slowly, he might not have resorted to such extreme measures. I find I feel sorry for him, because there must have been reasons why he behaved in such a risky way.

  3. Indeed, litlove, Dylan had no more cause to fabricate than Lehrer. I agree with you about the professional landscape today, about how debilitating it is in many creative fields – the pressure to achieve, to prove oneself, and to do so instantly.

    Reading that article from the New York Times, I thought of Salman Rushdie’s characters, particularly Saleem Sinai in the endlessly fascinating Midnight’s Children. On more than one occasion, Saleem slyly confesses that what he narrates in his memoirs to Padma may not really have happened in that way. I smile as I think about Rushdie’s own slyness with this – the old fox knows all too well how nostalgia can paint over reality, reject some patterns and insert new ones that didn’t even exist.

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