The title of science writer Jonah Lehrer's most recent bestselling book is "Imagine: How Creativity Works." As it turns out, Lehrer took his own advice. He imagined -- fabricated -- quotes from Bob Dylan in the book that was published last March.
When questioned about it during an investigation by journalist Michael C. Moynihan, he lied.
Lehrer's horrifying fall from grace, rife with irony, came to its inevitable conclusion Monday as Lehrer issued a statement, accompanying his resignation from the New Yorker. He joined the magazine as a staff writer, in part to write his Frontal Cortex blog (formerly written for Wired) only weeks ago. Very quickly, he was embroiled in charges of self-plagiarism, which -- largely through the forbearance of editor David Remnick -- he managed to survive. But only briefly.
His Monday statement included these devastating lines:
"The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers."
The situation is more than unfortunate; it's closer to sickening. And just so stupidly unnecessary. Lehrer is an prolific and enaging writer with a great deal of talent. At barely 31, he had decades of great work left to produce.
"Why do writers DO this?" moaned one of his fans in a Twitter post Monday afternoon.
Why, indeed? Without a team of psychologists -- the very same people Lehrer might have interviewed -- it's hard to know. Is it the unending pressure to produce? Is it a kind of high-level laziness? Is it arrogance -- the normal rules don't apply to me?
Hard to say. What we do know is that it's happened before and that it will happen again. But not with impunity. In journalism, a field that values integrity above all, or ought to, and where credibility is what we're selling, lying to your readers is the unforgivable sin.
From the online magazine Tablet, here is Michael C. Moynihan's piece on Lehrer.
Steve Myers offers this wrapup piece on Poynter.org.
And here is a Jessica Holland piece from The National from last April, summarizing Lehrer's advice on how to be more creative.
Two of his tips resonate differently now: "Make up rules" and "Ignore convention." Another, sadly, may come in handy: "Take long walks."