Charles Seife, an associate professor in NYU’s science journalism program, was asked by Wired to review a selection of Jonah Lehrer's work after it was revealed he routinely plagiarized or fabricated quotes. What he found was a troubling consistency to Lehrer's mistakes.
Seife reviewed 18 out of a possible 252 posts Lehrer wrote for Wired's Frontal Cortex blog. Some of the posts were flagged by Wired editors as suspect, some were chosen randomly by Wired editors, and some were chosen by Seife to ensure Wired wasn't controlling the sample. Seife is a science journalism professor, and while he's written for Wired once or twice, he was ultimately one of the most qualified and unbiased people who could properly review Lehrer's work "to determine whether he recycled, fabricated, plagiarized, or otherwise breached journalistic ethics."
Siefe was originally asked to review the pieces for Wired, but when they decided not to publish his findings he took his work to Slate, who gladly obliged. Seife looked for problems with recycling, press release plagiarism, plagiarism, quotation issues, and factual issues in all of the posts. The only one he didn't find a problem with? "The Paradox of Altruism," from February 2012. Every other piece reviewed had one, or more, problems. Seife interviewed Lehrer to try and figure out why he routinely broke the rules, but the revealing hour and a half interview is under lock and key thanks to, of course, proper journalism ethics:
I interviewed Lehrer for an hour and a half to get his reaction, but I am unable to publish his comments. Unfortunately, in the setup to the interview, Wired.com, which set the ground rules for the interview, didn't make sufficiently clear that the discussion was not solely part of an internal investigation and that it could be made public. As a result, I can't quote Lehrer or even paraphrase what he told me. But what I can say is that a number of his responses to my questions made me suspect that Lehrer's journalistic moral compass is badly broken.
In short, I am convinced that Lehrer has a cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood. This shows not only in his attitude toward quotations but in some of the other details of his writing. And a journalist who repeatedly fails to correct errors when they're pointed out is, in my opinion, exhibiting reckless disregard for the truth.
Two weeks ago, a Wired spokesman said the magazine was reviewing Lehrer's work and "to date we have not come across anything that seems too troubling," when it was reveled he was still welcome there. Wired released a statement and said Seife's findings, "leaves us no choice but to sever the relationship," with Lehrer.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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