Jonah Lehrer on Jonah Lehrer

Feb 12 2013

Knight Foundation: Informed & Engaged Communities

Media Learning Seminar 2013

Read: “In first public comments since plagiarism scandal, Jonah Lehrer blames ‘arrogance, need for attention’ for lies” on Knight Blog by Elise Hu

Jonah Lehrer speaks

Advance to 60 min and wait for buffering. Lehrer takes podium at 1:02.

“I’ve been asked to give a talk about decision-making. I’m going to focus today on bad decisions. On the causes and repercussions of failure. The failure I’ll be talking about is my own.”

 

ADDENDUM (Feb 13 2013):

Just when you think he’s expressing sincere remorse and apologizing for specific transgressions (including plagiarizing Christian Jarrett), he digresses into an irrelevant ramble about unconscious bias in forensic science. By comparing his deliberate journalistic transgressions to FBI fingerprint errors that resulted in wrongful arrest, he diminishes personal responsibility for his own errors and negates his prior confession and apology. Sad indeed.

He supposedly longs to use what we know about the psychology of deceit and the neuroscience of broken trust to “fix” himself.  He also applies Dan Ariely’s work on the ubiquity of cheating (in small ways) to justify his own actions. “The human mind is a confabulation machine.” Then why don’t we see similar scandals every day of the week?

Lehrer reveals “a consistent asymmetry in the ways in which I noticed error” to claim that he was blind to his own failings, but never to the mistakes of others.

“If I’m going to regain some semblance of self-respect, then I need the help of others. I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong if only so they can show myself I’m able to listen.”

Um, Spindle Neurons and Science Writing in 2007, Depression’s Cognitive Downside in 2010, and Revisiting Depression’s Cognitive Downside in 2011.1 Not to mention the many many book reviews and blog posts of others. See, for example, this recap by Christopher Chabris.

Self-Sabotage vs. Hubris and Narcissism

I’m reminded of my recent post on The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Self-Sabotage. It described the unconscious strategy of self-handicapping, or slacking off and then compiling a list of reasons for why you didn’t succeed, as a way to preserve self-esteem. Lehrer is indeed trying to preserve his ego and self-dignity, but the external blaming routine seems motivated by narcissism instead of being a shame-avoidance mechanism. In order to regain his writing career, he admits that he must join the rest of us, the unwashed masses of fact-checkers and footnoters.

However, I have no real insight into what his motivations might be. Cynics point to the $20,000 speaking fee he received from the Knight Foundation. But given the uproar and the outrage and the tweet wall of shame, was it really worth it?

Footnote

1  Despite being THE Neurocritic, I was never comfortable piling on during the original Jonah-bashing, because I thought it was mean. Back in the ScienceBlogs days, I occasionally commented on Jonah’s Frontal Cortex blog.  He’d reply back sometimes and other times linked to my blog. I don’t actually condone personal attacks, and perhaps this low level of personal interaction made me even more loath to do so.

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