Book Publishers Can Prevent the Next Jonah Lehrer

From New York Magazine’s writeup of Jonah Lehrer’s rise (blogger, writer, TED talker) and fall (fabulist, fraud, quote-maker-upper), and what it means for journalism:

Then it got so much worse. Four excruciating months later, Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will soon conclude a fact-check of his three books, the last of which, Imagine, was recalled from bookstores—a great expense for a company that, like all publishing houses, can’t afford to fact-check most books in the first place. In the meantime, he’s been completely ostracized. It’s unclear if he’ll ever write for a living again.

Lehrer was the poster boy of the recent rise of ‘academia lite’ publishing, where journalists aggregate and retell a body of scientific knowledge for a popular audience. For better (Daniel Kahneman) or worse (David Brooks), readers need narratives, publishers need content, academics need publicity, these aren’t going anywhere.

The process of fact-checking these books has come under scrutiny lately, and Lehrer is just the most recent case of a journalist misinterpreting (deliberately, accidentally, who cares) the results of academic studies to fit their own manufactured narrative.

My understanding of the publishing industry is that publishers lose money on basically 99 percent of the books they publish every year, and get into the black on just a few blockbusters. Publishers say they can’t fact-check all the books they print. I’m not all that sympathetic to this (‘it would be super hard’ is rarely a convincing defense for a multinational corporation), but more books rather than fewer is a good thing, and the reality is that publishers aren’t gonna put a New Yorker-style confirmation apparatus in place overnight.

I feel like a first step toward more accuracy in publishing is for authors to be much more accountable to their sources. Lehrer is basically accused of coming up with a conclusion first, then arranging his quotes and sources to confirm it. From what I know from my (brief) experience as an actual journalist, this is pretty standard practice. You hear about a story, you read a bit, you write it up, and you leave spaces with tags like quote from Yankees fan goes here or need Census data for this paragraph to fill in later. Good journalists will, obviously, change the story if their facts contradict their conclusions, but the actual methodology is fairly widespread.

The problem with this approach is that it conceives of sources as Mad Libs generators. You need a quote from someone, you call them up, you get them to talk til they say something that will fill the hole, you hang up. In journalism school you’re told a million times that sources aren’t allowed to see the final story before it’s published, and don’t get to amend their quotes.

This maybe makes sense for political journalism, where sources have an incentive to make themselves look good. If you’re interviewing them about some aspect of their job performance as a public official, they might try to spin you in a particular way if they know what you’re writing. Fine.

But science journalism is different. In the kinds of books and articles Lehrer was writing, his sources’ incentives were aligned with his own. Scientists want their work to reach a mass audience, and for articles to portray their results accurately.

I mean, check this out:

If Lehrer was misusing science, why didn’t more scientists speak up? When I reached out to them, a couple did complain to me, but many responded with shrugs. They didn’t expect anything better. Mark Beeman, who questioned that “needle in the haystack” quote, was fairly typical: Lehrer’s simplifications were “nothing that hasn’t happened to me in many other newspaper stories.”

Maybe book publishers can’t independently verify every single fact in every single book. But they can certainly call five or ten of their authors’ main sources, show them some chapters, and ask them if their work is being fairly represented. If Lehrer knew that his work would be shown to people he interviewed and the authors of studies he cited, he would have  been much less likely to distort their findings.

Yes, this approach has problems. Maybe the sources are dicks, and they don’t want a journalist broadcasting their results. Maybe they’re crazy-academic, and they don’t want their work published unless it’s drowning in jargon and caveats.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe they want to help make sure their work is fairly represented. Maybe they want to contribute additional information that could clarify it.

Either way, I fail to see how contacting an author’s sources—and being transparent with readers about it—would be worse than the current model, in which sources are interviewed and then discarded, and play no instrumental role in how their words and their work is represented. Sources shouldn’t necessarily have the right to approve everything that’s written about their work, but they should at least be consulted.

Authors and journalists that see true stories and correct information, rather than dazzling writing, as their primary constituents, should be arguing for this themselves.

Ultimately, I think Lehrer’s real sin was not believing in his own skill as a writer. If his work had focused on how there isn’t a simple explanation for complex phenomena, how much we don’t know about intuition, how evidence doesn’t clarify the world around us, he might still have ended up famous. And maybe, he could even have ended up right.

3 Comments

Filed under America, Books, Journalism

3 responses to “Book Publishers Can Prevent the Next Jonah Lehrer

  1. In journalism school you’re told a million times that sources aren’t allowed to see the final story before it’s published, and don’t get to amend their quotes.

    Really? As someone who’s been interviewed, I’ve always expected good journalists to double-check their quotes with me and to allow me to see the piece before it’s published. They don’t always and I’m unimpressed when they don’t. Also, when I write about people, I always double-check the quotes and I am usually willing to change stuff if they want me to. I’m surprised that this practice is actively opposed in journalism school — that’s silly. Why alienate sources without a really good reason?

    • My experience with sources is that when they realize how stupid the come off they throw tantrums and try to rewrite themselves. Rule of thumb is never, ever, ever run anything by sources once you’ve conducted the interview. Don’t get too cozy. Don’t be nicer than respectful. I’m perfectly fine going off record and I’m perfectly fine omitting embarrassing things which should never have been said in an interview so long as they aren’t important, but the subject does not dictate to me or my editor. Can’t live with that then do not agree to be interviewed. Journalism is 99% a joke already without focus groups and ad executives and delicate sources being consulted every draft.

  2. I’m surprised that there aren’t more willing sycophants to be interns for publishing houses. We’ve produced several generations of feckless youth so detached from reality we could never perform any useful function, wasted time and money on liberal arts educations, and have no concrete future waiting for anyone. What are the kids going to do? Wander the halls of Harper Collins and accept rote tasks from people with big names to google some presumptive facts from manuscripts. It’s not like they can get jobs anywhere else, there’s no competition. Looks good on the resume. Builds character. If you find an author has been less than forthright you can tell mommy and daddy how you did something meaningful and important, then tweet yourself an orgasm.

    And for what it’s worth whenever I’ve found myself responsible for an article which requires facts I actually conduct interviews as background. I do not know anything about engineering/nuclear disasters/Kenyan cinema/shield laws so interviews are my education. The problem then becomes a lack of various sources and context which makes you look like a shill. But a damned accurate shill, so far as your source material is concerned.

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