Jonah Lehrer's Grievous Oraculism

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Best-selling author and journalist Jonah Lehrer has been caught making up quotes. The consequences are grave:


Houghton Mifflin said in a statement that Lehrer had committed a "serious misuse." Listings for the e-book edition of "Imagine" will be removed and shipments of the physical book have been stopped. "Imagine," published in March, has sold more than 200,000 copies, according to Houghton Mifflin. It has spent 16 weeks on The New York Times' hardcover nonfiction bestseller list and ranked No. 105 on Amazon.com as of midday Monday. Amazon had cited the book as among the best March releases.

Lehrer also resigned from his staff writer gig at The New Yorker. My thoughts on Lehrer are unchanged from a few weeks ago, when he was caught republishing his own material as though it were new. Great long-form journalism comes from the author's irrepressible need to answer a question. Fictional long-form journalism comes from the writer's irrepressible need to be hailed as an oracle. In the former fabulism isn't just wrong because it cheats the reader, it's wrong because it cheats the writer. Manufactured evidence tends not to satiate an aching curiosity. But it does wonders for those most interested in oraculism. 

This dichotomy is a bit unfair. Some part of all of us wants to be credited and enjoys the acclaim. And a big part of all of us likes getting answers. But we now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions. We have no patience for mystery. We want the deciphering of gods. We want oracles. And we want them right now. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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