Jonah Lehrer – wunderkind science writer, former New Yorker contributor, and plagiarizer – would like to apologize.
Or, in Lehrer’s own words, “I am the author of a book on creativity that contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes. I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking, without credit or citation, an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I also plagiarized from myself.”
This week, Lehrer was invited by the Knight Foundation to speak. And many wondered what, exactly, he would say — or rather, how, and how often, and to whom, would he apologize?
“At the time my career fell apart, I was working on an article about the mental flaws that plague forensic researchers,” he says. “These are flaws that, if left unchecked, can lead to false matches and wrongful convictions.”
A majority of his remarks expand on this work; and, by-proxy, ignore some of the bloodier score-settling that his critics might have hoped for. It’s a nice piece of backdoor reporting, turning his own failures into the foundation for spotlighting other, larger ones. It is also, yes, contrite, with space to quote both Joan Didion and Bob Dylan (for real this time) and peppered with the perspective of easy omniscience that makes his work readable…and suspect.
Ultimately, these cautionary tales — footnoted all — will serve as a road map for his redemption. It was nice that he got to fail almost as bad as the FBI. “And that’s why I need my new standard procedures,” he says. “They are a forcing function, forcing me to deal with my own bad decisions.”
The speech begins with the hope, at some eventual point, for forgiveness. But Lehrer seems to have changed his mind by the end, looking instead toward “the possibility of improvement. Not redemption, not forgiveness.”
What do you think of the “I’m sorry”? And where does it rank in the pantheon of disgraced journalism apologies?