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In Defense of Jonah Lehrer: Not a Sexist, and Should not be Fired

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Jonah Lehrer

By Ben Cohen: Poor Jonah Lehrer - the new New Yorker staff writer raked over the coals for plagiarizing himself is getting it from all angles. Lehrer's science blog, 'Frontal Cortex' features thought provoking posts on 'science, imagination, and the mind', and his move to the prestigious New Yorker was seen as a major accomplishment for someone so young (Lehrer is only 30 years old). His use of previous published material has put his career into question, and Lehrer may find himself back on the job market should the New Yorker decide his errors adequately damaged their reputation.

Some of the criticisms leveled at him have been fair - the magazine is paying him for original material and copying and pasting work he did for other outlets is in sketchy ethical territory, and Lehrer certainly deserves to be reprimanded.

Some of the attacks however, have been unwarranted, mean spirited and downright silly.

Michelle Williams at Salon somehow managed to find a way to bring sexism into the debate, accusing Lehrer of 'male arrogance'.

Check out the headline for her piece that basically accused the whole publication of being a big frat house:

Williams says the culture of hubris comes from the top down at the New Yorker, and is a symptom of male arrogance. She writes:

Perhaps a little bubble-bursting is the right order, if the point is to publish excellent work. After all, so confident were Lehrer’s editors in his talents they apparently didn’t read his old work close enough to notice it was being handed right back to them. Perhaps a little less confidence and some more self-questioning would have done them some good, too.

How Williams makes this leap is beyond me, and is perhaps more an indication of William's personal hang-ups than anything else. I wonder how William's interpreted Hillary Clinton's famous embellishment of a trip she made to Bosnia, where the then Presidential candidate claimed she got off the plane and literally had to run from sniper fire - a fact dismantled by actual footage of the event that showed nothing of the kind. It could just as easily be argued that Hillary displayed arrogance in recounting the tale, sure that no one would bother to check and overconfident that the truth wasn't really important. And Hillary is a woman.

Personally, I think both Lehrer and Clinton were probably suffering from stress, and made a silly mistake. Yes, they displayed laziness and overconfidence, but gender has nothing to do with it, and Williams is projecting her own world view in an intellectually lazy way. She's seeing enemies where there aren't any, and is piling on to a fellow writer whose young career hangs in the balance.

As a journalist/blogger I can sympathize with Lehrer - coming up with fresh material day in day out is relentless, and the internet is an unforgiving place. To make a name for yourself in the modern online era, you need to drive traffic consistently and never, ever let up. What you write can spread to thousands of people in the blink of an eye, every detail can be scrutinized, crossed checked and ripped apart with an increasing number of tools. Google search has made it impossible to hide, and having an off week can literally end your career.

And Gawker's champion of snark Hamilton Nolan is calling for no less:

Why is he working for the most rarefied journalistic magazine in America? You know? Send him down to the minors. A few years rewriting scientific press releases for could probably do him a world of good. If The New Yorker keeps Lehrer on, at this point, it's quite hard to not scoff at the idea that The New Yorker takes basic rules of journalism very seriously. This shit would get you canned from the average community newspaper.

A few years ago, I may have written something similar (and probably did) in regards to ethical breaches by journalists, but now I'm not so sure. I don't believe a mistake should result in the loss of livelihood, particularly when it comes to the unstable and generally poorly paid industry of professional writing. Lehrer is an excellent writer, and while it is popular to bash him as a Malcolm Gladwell rip off, he really is very good. Go and read his work and decide for yourself, but I personally find him to be interesting, and very thoughtful. Rather than calling for his head, I'd like to see a little humility from other writers who have no doubt made mistakes in their own careers and were probably lucky to get away with them. Interestingly, it's a topic Lehrer actually wrote about in one of the accused blog posts:

Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves.

Lehrer made a mistake. He should be punished accordingly (and given the hostility he's facing, he's probably had enough), and allowed to continue making a living doing what he clearly loves. I would like to continue reading Lehrer's work at the New Yorker in some form, and think that this experience will actually be good for him. He can learn from it and come back a better and more original blogger. As Josh Levin at Slate writes:

A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight. In populating his New Yorker blog with large swaths of his old work, Lehrer didn’t just break a rule of journalism. By repurposing an old post on why we don’t believe in science, he also unscrewed the cap on his brain, revealing that it’s currently running on the fumes emitted by back issues of Wired. For Lehrer and TheNew Yorker, the best prescription is to shut down Frontal Cortex and give him some time to come up with some fresh ideas. The man’s brain clearly needs a break.

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