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Jonah Lehrer’s Mistake: Trying to Be Thoughtful and Intelligent at the Same Time


No sooner has Jonah Lehrer begun his new job at The New Yorker than he’s been called out for recycling his writing on a large scale. Plagiarism is theft of another’s intellectual property. Self-plagiarism, by contrast, is less glaringly offensive, though it’s still an offense. It’s cheating, cutting corners, short-changing your publisher and readers, passing off used goods as new. It’s short-changing two publishers, actually — the publisher who got used goods and the publisher who had already used them and expected some recognition of his prior association with them.

The party most harmed by self-plagiarization, though, is, of course, the self-plagiarizer himself, once he’s discovered. He loses respect.

As a journalist, Lehrer has violated best practices — perhaps, the speculation goes, because he sees himself not as a journalist but rather a professional thinker who happens to work in a journalism environment. But those best practices aren’t peculiar to journalism, and in violating them Lehrer leaves us to wonder not just about his honesty but about his depth and intellectual range.

Is he running out of words? Of ideas? Is he a one-hit wonder? No shame in that, necessarily. F. Scott Fitzgerald was born to write one book, the great American novel, and he wrote it, the rest of his output being extended warmup and cooldown sessions that happened to find their way into print.

A more charitable explanation for Lehrer’s behavior might be that the medium he has agreed to work in, blogging, doesn’t lend itself to the kind of writing he wants to do. Would he rather be the Cormac McCarthy of nonfiction, living in the desert and sending us his wisdom on his own terms and schedule?

Lehrer’s job requires him to produce fresh writing at a pace that may be faster than suits him. He may have a baseball head, as it were. But journalism is football, where the clock ticks and deadlines are set in real time.

He’s trying to be both intelligent and thoughtful, although, as he explains nicely in one of his offending posts for The New Yorker, intelligence and thoughtfulness seem to conflict. That is, someone with an aptitude for firing off rapid plausible responses is usually not inclined to consider all the possible responses and to think each one through to its logical conclusion. The latter takes time. We say the thoughtful person is “slow.” That was Thomas Aquinas, the “dumb ox,” as Chesterton christened him. The answer that the rest of the world was looking for was being rattled off by his brighter classmates with lightning speed while Thomas sat there stolidly, puzzling through the question and anticipating objections to each likely (or unlikely) answer as it occurred to him. He might have known, or intuited, or believed what the correct answer was. What set him back was his need to know why it was true. He explained it to us, eventually, leading us down the long, winding paths he had traveled in his mind, pointing out which ones lead somewhere and which ones don’t. It took some years.

All best to Jonah Lehrer. I hope he finds his stride.


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