Jonah Lehrer

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Jonah Lehrer
Jonah Lehrer - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME.jpg
Born Jonah Richard Lehrer
(1981-06-25) June 25, 1981 (age 34)
Los Angeles, California
Spouse(s) Sarah Liebowitz (1 child)

Jonah Richard Lehrer[1][2] (born June 25, 1981) is an American author, journalist, blogger, and speaker who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience, and the relationship between science and the humanities. He has published three books, two of which, Imagine and How We Decide, were withdrawn from the market by publishers after it was discovered that Lehrer had fabricated quotations. This led to his resignation from his staff position at The New Yorker following disclosures that he had recycled his own work for the magazine. A later investigation at, where he had previously worked, found instances of recycled content and plagiarism.

Personal life[edit]

Lehrer was born in Los Angeles, California, in the Los Feliz neighborhood.[3] His mother, Ariella (born Jean Hively), developed educational software, and his father, David Lehrer, is a civil rights lawyer.[3] His mother converted to Judaism before marrying his father.[4][5] Lehrer graduated from Columbia University in 2003 with a major in neuroscience; while an undergraduate, he examined the biological process of memory in Nobel Prize-winner Eric Kandel's lab.[6] He was also editor of the Columbia Review for two years.[6] Among his poems in the magazine was "The Frustrated Monologue," in which Lehrer wrote, "to reveal/the terrible truth/hidden inside a detail./I am lying and I am a liar/and the rocks of Flaubert are blue/because blue is a cliché."[7] According to his management agency, he then studied 20th-century literature and philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.[8] He is a contributing editor at Scientific American Mind, Radiolab syndicated by National Public Radio, and has written for The New Yorker, Wired, Grantland, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe.[9] Lehrer owns the historic Shulman House in Los Angeles, California.[10][11][12] He is married to Sarah Liebowitz, who worked as a journalist, and the couple has one child.[3]


Lehrer is the author of three best-selling books: Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2007), How We Decide (2009), and Imagine: How Creativity Works (2012). Two of these books have been withdrawn from the market by their publishers for inaccuracies, misattributed quotations, fabricated quotations, plagiarism and recycled content.[13][14][15][16][17]

Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a collection of biographical essays on creative figures such as Paul Cézanne, Walt Whitman, Auguste Escoffier, and Marcel Proust.[18] The New York Times described it as "a precocious and engaging book that tries to mend the century-old tear between the literary and scientific cultures."[19] A review in The Daily Telegraph stated, "Lehrer is a dazzlingly clever young man whose writing bears witness to both the clarity of his scientific training and the humanity of his literary studies. The Whitmanesque electricity of all the thought and heart he has put into this book fizzes from each sentence."[20] Salon, by contrast, described it as being written "arbitrarily and often inaccurately".[21]

In How We Decide, Lehrer argues there are two main parts of the brain involved in decision-making, the rational and the emotional.[22] The New York Times' review of How We Decide said, "Explaining decision-making on the scale of neurons makes for a challenging task, but Lehrer handles it with confidence and grace. As an introduction to the cognitive struggle between the brain’s 'executive' rational centers and its more intuitive regions, How We Decide succeeds with great panache."[23] However, the scientific journal Nature called portions of the book into question based on current understanding of neuroscience.[24]

A review of Imagine: How Creativity Works in The Washington Post said, "Lehrer practices what he preaches, showing an appetite for learning, a determined effort to cross fields and disciplines, and a delight in exploring new possibilities."[25] The New York Times called Lehrer "adept" at "teasing out the social and economic implications of scientific theories while commuting easily among the realms of science, business and art. He deconstructs the creative process behind a Bob Dylan song with the same verve he brings to the story of how Procter & Gamble created the Swiffer, its New Age mop."[26] Before it was pulled from the shelves by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Imagine was on the Los Angeles Times' hardcover nonfiction bestseller list for many weeks.[27]

Controversy and criticism[edit]


Prior to Lehrer's plagiarism scandal, many members of the scientific community criticized his writing. The New York Times Book Review derided his book Imagine for its "many elementary errors" and "formulaic" approach, as well as for "Lehrer's failure to grasp some fundamental principles of scientific thinking."[28] The New Republic called Imagine "inaccurate", simplistic", and "glib", and concluded, "Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it."[29]

Plagiarism and quote fabrication scandal[edit]

In 2012, it was reported that Lehrer had "self-plagiarized" several blog posts he had submitted to The New Yorker.[30][31] All five of these blog posts now appear on The New Yorker website with editor's notes listing where Lehrer had previously published related sentences, including The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Wired, and The Guardian.[32] Additionally, Edward Champion reported that portions of Imagine: How Creativity Works had been published previously in various forms by Lehrer.[33] In response, a spokesperson for Lehrer's publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, stated: "He owns the rights to the relevant articles, so no permission was needed. He will add language to the acknowledgments noting his prior work."[34] Lehrer apologized for the unattributed reuse of his own work.[34]

A correction appended to a different Lehrer article on The New Yorker website from January 2012 noted that unattributed quotations published in the original version of that article had been taken from the work of another writer.[35]

Much more seriously, some weeks later, Michael C. Moynihan reported in Tablet Magazine that Lehrer had fabricated quotes attributed to singer Bob Dylan in his book Imagine.[13][14][15] Moynihan noted later that the quotations immediately sounded phoney to him when he read the book: they "sounded like a Dylan self-help book." This prompted him to seek clarification from Lehrer and Dylan's manager.[36] In a statement, Lehrer said, "The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes." He also acknowledged having initially lied about the sources for these quotes to Moynihan when first confronted about them.[37][38] His publisher announced that unsold print copies of the book would be recalled and sales of e-books would be suspended.[14] In addition, several of his upcoming speaking engagements were cancelled.[39] Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker on July 30, 2012, less than two months after he had joined the staff, in the wake of the revelations. ABC News compared Lehrer to Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair.[40] Houghton Mifflin Harcourt subsequently announced that all three of his books were under review.[41]

In August 2012, it was reported[16] that a quotation from the magician Teller of the performance duo Penn and Teller that had been included in Imagine was inaccurate and that a previous version of the quote, which Lehrer had used for a 2009 Wired magazine article,[42] had been accurate.

In the wake of the disclosures, asked journalism professor Charles Seife to investigate Lehrer's posts to its website. Writing in, Seife said that he had found that 17 of 18 Lehrer posts he had sampled contained examples of recycled work, plagiarism, dubious facts, problematic quotes, and/or reuse of press releases.[43] On August 31, 2012,'s editor-in-chief, Evan Hansen, stated: "Lehrer’s failure to meet WIRED editorial standards leaves us no choice but to sever the relationship."[44]

On March 1, 2013, Lehrer’s publisher announced that his second book, How We Decide, would be pulled.[45]

In addition to two of Lehrer's books being pulled, several of his speaking engagements were cancelled. These included addresses to the Holmes Report’s Global Public Relations Summit, Iowa State University's College of Engineering, the Aliso Creek Inn in Laguna Beach, California, and at Earlham College on the ethics of decision making.[46]

The controversy surrounding Lehrer's misuse of Bob Dylan quotes in Imagine and the subsequent fallout, including his televised apology at a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation conference, figure heavily in Jon Ronson's 2015 book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. In assessing Ronson's book in, Daniel Engber concluded that Lehrer's catalogue of inaccuracy "wasn’t sloppiness or a rash of dumb mistakes. At best, it was a systematic disregard for journalistic ethics. At worst, it was calculated fraud." [47]


Jonah Lehrer making his 2013 speech in Miami for the Knight Foundation, shortly after having admitted to having made up quotations in his book Imagine. Lehrer's apology was perceived by many as being obfuscatory and failing to address his actions.[47] The episode forms a large part of Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed.[36]

On February 12, 2013, Lehrer publicly apologized for his plagiarism and fabrications in a speech before the Knight Foundation. In the speech, Lehrer announced plans to continue writing and spoke of potential safeguards to prevent similar lapses in judgment and accuracy from happening again. At one point he stated, "I need rules." Some criticized the speech, arguing that Lehrer did not express sufficient regret and finding Lehrer's attempts to use neuroscience to discuss his conduct evasive and misleading. In Slate, Daniel Engber wrote that the speech "was couched in elaborate and perplexing disavowals"; Joseph Nocera of The New York Times said that "As apologies go, it was both arrogant and pathetic" while Moynihan described it as "a string of Gladwellian bullshit."[48][49]

Further controversy was generated after the Knight Foundation stated that it had offered Lehrer a $20,000 fee, which he had accepted.[50][51][36][a] Shortly after the speech, the foundation issued a statement in which it acknowledged that Lehrer's speaking fee was "not something [the] Knight Foundation, given [their] values, should have paid."[53]

In March 2015, Lehrer offered another apologia for his misconduct. At a forum discussion at Fresno State University, he said that his large workload led to "very serious mistakes. I was taking on more projects than I could handle." In regard to the fabricated Dylan quotes, he specifically cited the deadline to finish his book, Imagine. According to the Fresno State student publication The Collegian, Lehrer now "sends interview subjects the quotes he plans to use," "records all his interviews for reference," and "no longer accepts honorariums to speak."[54]

The Smarter Screen and other recent projects[edit]

On June 6, 2013, Simon & Schuster announced that it would publish a book by Lehrer with the working title The Book of Love. No publication date has been set.[55] In, Daniel Engber suggested that Lehrer might have plagiarized portions of his book proposal from the work of his former New Yorker colleague Adam Gopnik. Both had written about the same episode in the life of Darwin, using the same biography (that of Desmond and Moore) as a source.[56]

In November 2014, it was announced that Portfolio, an imprint of Random House, had acquired The Digital Mind: How We Think and Behave Differently on Screens, co-written by Lehrer and Shlomo Benartzi, an economist and financial planning expert.[57][58] The book was published as The Smarter Screen: What Your Business Can Learn from the Way Consumers Think Online, credited as written by Benartzi with Lehrer, on October 6.[59][60] Carlos Lozada noted in The Washington Post that Lehrer's name appears on the cover "in far smaller type size than Benartzi's name" and that he is described merely as "a science writer living in Los Angeles." Lozada also noted that whereas Benartzi's photograph appears on the jacket, Lehrer's does not.[61]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This is approximately four months' income for the average writer in the U.S., according to BLS data.[52]


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  3. ^ a b c Harris, Paul (March 25, 2012). "Jonah Lehrer: the prodigy who lights up the brain". The Guardian (London). 
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  5. ^ "Book Buzz - Author’s mom a Red Lion grad". 
  6. ^ a b Sterling, Kristin (December 16, 2002). "College's Cyrus Habib, Jonah Lehrer Named Rhodes Scholars". Columbia News. Columbia University. 
  7. ^ "“I am a liar”: The Early Poetry of Jonah Lehrer, Columbia Undergraduate > Columbia, jonah lehrer, plagiarism, poetry, The Columbia Review, this is why people hate the ivy league - IvyGate". 
  8. ^ "Jonah Lehrer: Author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist". The Lavin Agency. Retrieved 2011-12-10. 
  9. ^ "Short bio at personal page". Retrieved 2009-11-15. 
  10. ^ Beale, Lauren (December 4, 2010). "Hot Property: New owner in the picture at Julius Shulman residence". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 30, 2012. 
  11. ^ Gelles, David (April 14, 2012). "Jonah Lehrer: The man with the big ideas". FT Magazine. Retrieved July 30, 2012. 
  12. ^ Kudler, Adrian (November 30, 2010). "Just The Right Buyer for Julius Shulman's Laurel Canyon Soriano". Curbed LA. Retrieved July 30, 2012. 
  13. ^ a b Moynihan, Michael C. (July 30, 2012). "Jonah Lehrer's Deceptions". Tablet. Retrieved 3 August 2012. 
  14. ^ a b c Myers, Steve (July 30, 2012). "Jonah Lehrer resigns from New Yorker after accusation he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in 'Imagine'". Poynter. Retrieved 30 July 2012. 
  15. ^ a b Interview: Michael Moynihan, 17 Aug 2012, Friday Late, ABC Radio National
  16. ^ a b "Another false quotation found in Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Imagine’". 
  17. ^ "Publisher Pulls Jonah Lehrer's 'How We Decide' From Stores", The Daily Beast, 1 March 2013.
  18. ^ Lehrer, Jonah (2007). Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-618-62010-4. 
  19. ^ Max, D.T. Swann’s Hypothesis, The New York Times, November 4, 2007
  20. ^ Brown, Helen (2011-03-01). "Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer: review". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  21. ^ Keats, Jonathon (2012-06-07). "Proust Was a Neuroscientist". Salon. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  22. ^ Lehrer, Jonah (2009). How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-618-62011-1. 
  23. ^ Johnson, Steven Berlin (March 18, 2009). "Mind Matters". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-06-26. 
  24. ^ Kepecs, Adam (April 16, 2009). "Decisions, decisions...". Nature 458 (7240): 835. doi:10.1038/458835a. Retrieved 2010-09-17. 
  25. ^ Roth, Michael S. (March 23, 2012). "'Imagine: How Creativity Works,' by Jonah Lehrer". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  26. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (April 2, 2012). "How to Cultivate Eureka Moments 'Imagine: How Creativity Works,' by Jonah Lehrer". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  27. ^ "Jonah Lehrer". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-07-01. 
  28. ^ Chabris, Christopher (May 11, 2012). "Boggle The Mind – 'Imagine,' by Jonah Lehrer". Sunday Book Review (New York Times). Retrieved July 30, 2012. 
  29. ^ "Isaac Chotiner: The Curse Of Knowledge: A Review Of Jonah Lehrer's "Imagine: How Creativity Works" | The New Republic". Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  30. ^ Levin, Josh (June 19, 2012). "Why Did Jonah Lehrer Plagiarize Himself?". Slate. 
  31. ^ Coscarelli, Joe (June 19, 2012). "New Yorker Writer Jonah Lehrer Plagiarizes Himself Repeatedly". New York Magazine. Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  32. ^ Lehrer, Jonah. "Frontal Cortex". The New Yorker. Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  33. ^ Champion, Edward. "How Jonah Lehrer Recycled His Own Material for Imagine". Reluctant Habits. Retrieved 22 June 2012. 
  34. ^ a b Schuessler, Jennifer (June 20, 2012). "Lehrer Apologizes for Recycling Work, While New Yorker Says It Won't Happen Again". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 June 2012. 
  35. ^ Lehrer, Jonah. "Groupthink". The New Yorker. Retrieved 20 June 2012.  See the Editor's Note at the end of this column.
  36. ^ a b c Ronson, Jon. So You've Been Publicly Shamed. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-698-17252-4. 
  37. ^ Bosman, Julie (July 30, 2012). "Jonah Lehrer Resigns From New Yorker After Making Up Dylan Quotes for His Book". NY Times Media Blog. Retrieved 20 July 2012. 
  38. ^ Kellogg, Carolyn (July 30, 2012). "Jonah Lehrer's Bob Dylan quotes lead to resignation". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 30, 2012. 
  39. ^ Bercovici, Jeff. "Jonah Lehrer Was Going To Give A Speech On Ethics. It's Canceled, Obviously. - Forbes". Forbes. 
  40. ^ ABC News. "Jonah Lehrer, Jayson Blair and Publishing's 6 Notorious Offenders - ABC News". ABC News. 
  41. ^ "Jonah Lehrer’s publisher is reviewing all of his books". 
  42. ^ Jonah Lehrer (20 April 2009). "Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion". WIRED. 
  43. ^ "Wired severs ties with Jonah Lehrer after investigator finds 22 more examples of plagiarism, recycling". 
  44. ^ Hansen, Evan (August 31, 2012). "Violations of Editorial Standards Found in WIRED Writer's Blog". Wired. 
  45. ^ "Publisher Pulls Jonah Lehrer’s “How We Decide” From Stores - The Daily Beast". The Daily Beast. 
  46. ^ Jeff Bercovici. "Jonah Lehrer Was Going To Give A Speech On Ethics. It's Canceled, Obviously.". Forbes. 
  47. ^ a b Engber, Daniel (31 March 2015). "Were We Too Hard on Jonah Lehrer?". Slate. Retrieved 7 April 2015. 
  48. ^ Engber, Daniel. "Jonah Lehrer's Mea Sorta Culpa". Slate. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  49. ^ Nocera, Joe (June 7, 2013). "How to Monetize Plagiarism". The New York Times. 
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  55. ^ "Jonah Lehrer Has Deal for New Book". AP. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  56. ^ Daniel Engber (7 June 2013). "Jonah Lehrer book proposal on love: Did he plagiarize Adam Gopnik?". Slate Magazine. 
  57. ^ Finnegan, Leah. "Confirmed Fraud Jonah Lehrer Has Yet Another Book Deal". Gawker. Retrieved 5 November 2015. 
  58. ^ "Jonah Lehrer Working on Book About Digital Life". AP. 11 November 2014 – via The New York Times. 
  59. ^ "The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior: Shlomo Benartzi, Jonah Lehrer: 9781591847861: Books". 
  60. ^ Lehrer & Benartzi (2015). The Smarter Screen: What Your Business Can Learn from the Way Consumers Think Online. ISBN 0-349-41039-9. 
  61. ^ Carlos Lozada (9 October 2015). "The humbling of Jonah Lehrer, as told through a book jacket". Washington Post. 

External links[edit]