Signature Significance, Jonah Lehrer, and That Sinking Feeling

Yes, uh, a little TOO MUCH creativity there, Jonah…

At the New Yorker, star writer Jonah Lehrer has resigned after it was shown that he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan for his well-reviewed book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

This was the final shoe dropping that began with one untied shoelace, the discovery in June that Lehrer had plagiarized from himself, lifting a section of a piece published earlier in one publication to include in a piece written for The New Yorker. This is a minor ethical incursion—-Lehrer had represented the second essay as original, so using prior published material was dishonest even if he was the author—but it launched his employers on a mission of scrutiny, investigating to see if the one transgression was part of a trend.

When it comes to professional ethics, you see, it often is. The principle of signature significance holds that in some pursuits just one episode can be enough to make certain conclusions. A writer of true integrity never borrows from his own published work without flagging the fact. Doing so even once indicates shaky integrity, and a willingness to cut corners. It may well indicate a proclivity to cheat in more egregious ways.

This proved to be the case with Lehrer. Sure enough, he had made a habit of re-cycling his words. Then a reporter for Tablet, an online magazine, got the scent of a more sensational deception, one that involved Lehrer using phony Bob Dylan quotes in his book.  When he was confronted, Lehrer lied…another predictable part of the package. Eventually, all the excuses and deflections collapsed, and the New Yorker forced him to quit.

The question is, of course, how unusual is Jonah Lehrer? We have no idea at all, and the ephemeral nature of ethics in the journalistic field today leaves us with no confidence that he is the right kind of aberration—a rare journalist who cheats, rather than a rare journalist who is caught cheating. Washington Post blogger Eric Wemple closed his article about Lehrer this way, which I found a bit unsettling:

“Lehrer sold himself to the public and to editors as a smart fellow, a student of the brain who could think his way to a nascent literary fame. He just wasn’t smart enough to mislead.”

Is Wemple saying that the truly smart journalists can mislead and get away with it? Whether that was his intent or not, I fear he might be right.


Graphic: Jewish Journal

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

6 thoughts on “Signature Significance, Jonah Lehrer, and That Sinking Feeling

  1. I believe part of the problem is that we have allowed news organizations to surround themselves with like minded individuals. They all see only what they want and if the truth doesn’t fit their agenda then they spin. And with having people around them who want the same thing we have no one who will argue or try for truth over agenda.

    You see it with Fox News with the “You didn’t build that.” misquoting. And then you have it with CNN and anything anti republican. I can’t even watch the news anymore with how bad it has gotten. The whole atmosphere in journalism has been corrupted by agenda over truth speaking.

    • With you there, Joshua, and sadder, because I can no longer find a source for news that I can trust (that’s a source, AND news). I’m surprised at what you said about CNN – wondering if you’ve just never even looked at MSNBC for comparison. They’re all corporate special interest-driven and -beholden now. The “public” ones, too. The alternative seems to be nothing more than more of the same, only embodied in rogue-ish “independents” who relish too much their power to influence, to be trustworthy with whatever power they have to inform and stimulate in a service-oriented manner without deliberate deception.

  2. I have to admit that this is a bit of an eye-opener for me, because prior to reading this article I would have never thought of using one’s OWN words that have been previously published as a form of plagiarism. In my mind, an “original” article means “written entirely by me”, and not necessarily in one sitting.

    On the closing paragraph, I took the meaning as “Well I guess this guy isn’t really as smart as he said he was”–attacking the hubris of portraying himself as an intellectual, rather than criticizing him for the plagiarism: a misplaced argument because the two don’t necessarily have a correlation.

    I have much more respect for a smart person who’s unfamiliar with the methods of deception than for an average guy who’s a really good liar.


    • It’s not one sitting so much as one usage. Would it be appropriate to turn in the same book report to 3 different teachers?

      • Good analogy. Ironically, I just posted a piece of “self plagiarism” of sorts. But the audiences are distinct, the source is identified, and nobody is paying me…for either the original or the adaptation.

        • The second you note the source, you’re fine. The issue is pretending it’s fresh. I have one truly published paper in graph theory, but it’s just a slimmed down and cleaned up version of a paper I wrote for (and that was unofficially published by) a high school summer program. Since the later paper plainly explains the original source, it’s not self plagiarism.

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