Recycling Ideas, for Good or Ill

In June, the New Yorker hired psychology and neuroscience journalist Jonah Lehrer as a staff writer.

“We are excited about Jonah,” said Nicholas Thompson when he hired Lehrer. “We’re adding things we’re really proud of. Not just things that will get hits.”

But then, it turned out, well, maybe Lehrer ideas weren’t really all that original. Earlier this week Jim Romenesko revealed that Lehrer was apparently in the habit of recycling some of his own work. A piece by Lehrer pushed last week contained passages from a piece he wrote in the Wall Street Journal back in October.

Later Joe Coscarelli revealed at New York magazine that other pieces Lehrer has written for the New Yorker also appeared in articles he wrote for Wired, the New York Times Magazine a his 2009 book, How We Decide.

Plagiarization is the mortal sin of both academia and journalism. And while this isn’t really plagiarism (he did write all of this stuff, he just didn’t write all of it, well, originally) Lehrer will probably have to answer for this over and over again (It’s a big deal; no matter what Doris Kearns Goodwin accomplishes, for instance, there’s always going to be a note in her bio pointing out that she copied significant portions of her 1987 The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedysfrom someone else’s book) as rightly he should.

But J.K. Trotter over at Ivy Gate has an interesting idea about how this how it happens:

Without knowing where exactly he went to college, we intuited that it was an Ivy (Columbia, as it turns out), and that he probably won some kind of award (the Rhodes, as it turns out). After all, Lehrer has spent a short, lucrative career flogging noxious pseudoscience as a method of enlightenment and success. You basically must be credentialed by a prestigious university like Columbia (preferably as an undergraduate), regardless of what you studied there, to do so. Thus Jonah Lehrer: who, at the age of 30, based on books that openly ignore standards of research, of science, snags a job at The New Yorker.

And the rest of his success as a writer?

Commercial non-fiction, like commercial fiction, depends on the author’s ability to dress old ideas in new clothes, over and over again. Pop science is the romantic literature of non-fiction. It requires its writers not to have, or act on, an original thought. The thing is, everybody knew this long before Jonah Lehrer demonstrated his inability—or unwillingness—to pose a new idea or ask a novel question.

And maybe that’s the point. The Ivy League’s opinion of originality was best demonstrated by Aliza Shvarts. (Remember that whole thing?) And it’s not like you get into Princeton (the alma mater of New Yorker chief David Remnick) without preparing for and taking dozens of standardized exams, and heeding, with obsessive detail, the instructions and advice of teachers, parents, and admissions committees. How is any original thought of Lehrer’s, of anyone’s, supposed to survive that?

That doesn’t excuse sloppy work at all (and it’s not even clear why this applies exclusively to the Ivy League and not just professional success in general) but Trotter has explained here why plagiarism is so easy to get away with. Do you really want to hear a 31-year-old Columbia graduate give an original opinion?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer