Three Questions for Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer was one of the first writers I befriended as I went into science writing. I did so before he published his first book. We became friends, blogged beside and often in response to one another first at ScienceBlogs and then here at Wired, and collaborated both at Scientific American’s Mind Matters, which I founded, and as co-contributors at Very Short Lists’s science channel. I considered him a good friend and an admirable colleague.

I at first defended him from charges of ‘self-plagiarism’ and was then dismayed when it was revealed his sins went far, far beyond plagiarism. I have hoped since then that at some point he would “reach out”, as the saying goes, to the many colleagues and editors and friends whom he betrayed with his systemic fraud. Like everyone who knows him, I’ve always wished him well. But there is a sense in which he stole work from us, and betrayed the trust for many who worked incredibly hard for him, and I’ve come to wish for an apology, not just to me, but to others he has betrayed. I have so far waited in vain. I feel as big a fool as did the fans of Lance Armstrong who long believed He Just Couldn’t Have Done It.

Today I learned that the Knight Foundation, which does so much to support good journalism, will give him a podium as a keynote speaker at a conference tomorrow. I tweeted the head of the event, one @ibarguen, that I hope he has some tough questions for Jonah. I have some myself I’d like to see answered. Here they are, as I tweeted them:

#3Qs4Jonah @jonahlehrer 1 Why did neither you nor Knight note, in your bio, that one of the books that made u famous was withdrawn? Cc @ibarguen

#3Qs4Jonah @jonahlehrer 2 Will you confess to anything that others haven’t already exposed or stand on the verge of exposing? Cc @ibarguen

#3Qs4Jonah @jonahlehrer 3 Why haven’t u apologized 4 yr fraud to the colleagues, friends, & editors whom u lied to & betrayed? Cc @ibarguen

And finally:

#3Qs4Jonah @jonahlehrer I ask as one who feels a friendship & trust & generosity were betrayed. I am truly sorry to feel compelled to do so.

I miss the Jonah I once knew, or thought I knew. I would love to come to know another that contains the best of him without the worst. But I feel I would fool myself badly, and betray his enormous potential, if I pretended he didn’t have a lot to answer for before he’s ushered back to podiums.

Corrections Tuesday 2/12/13: I originally wrote, in question 1 above, that “the books that made you famous” were withdrawn, as it was my memory, as I wrote this post a bit hurriedly last night amid some family healthcare tasks, that both Imagine and How We Decide were withdrawn by the publisher. In fact only Imagine was withdrawn last summer. It was withdrawn from sales by the publisher while it was on the bestseller list, doubtless at tremendous direct cost and the cost of lost sales, so that it could be factchecked. As of today it has not been returned to the market.

Also, I should probably also have asked, in my second question, why he had never confessed to anything that others hadn’t already exposed or stood on the verge of exposing, rather than using the future tense, which may imply that more fabrications or other misdeeds stood ready to be exposed — a question on which I’ll pass for now. However, see the paragraph above.

Later, during the talk, I tweeted a request that Jonah consider paying an independent fact-checker (or more than one) to fact- and source-check both Imagine and How We Decide and publish the results.

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