by Dan Gibson
You might not remember Jonah Lehrer. After all, it's only been ten months or so since he was publicly discredited for recycling his own material, making up quotes and plagarizing others in the midst of a burst of fame as the young, smart guy who creates a strawman declaring that people think one way, when in fact they should really think another. It was a pretty bad situation, not really helped by Lehrer later lying to a Los Angeles magazine writer and taking $20,000 to speak in front of a foundation for journalists in which he bizarrely blamed his own superior intelligence for his downfall.
All the while, you'd hope that Lehrer would at least seem sorry (he doesn't) or have the good sense to disappear from writing for a living for awhile (he isn't).
So, Simon and Schuster have apparently purchased a new book by Lehrer, subtly titled The Book of Love. Daniel Engber of Slate saw the book proposal and it sounds like Lehrer's general pop-science bullshit, but hey, guess what? A significant section of the proposal has remarkable similarity to an essay written by someone else. Quelle surprise!:
There are moments in the proposal...where Lehrer’s language seems caught in a cycle of reappropriation and re-use. A chapter on the secret to having a happy marriage, for example, comes close to copying a recent essay on the same subject by Adam Gopnik, Lehrer’s one-time colleague at The New Yorker. Gopnik wrote:
In 1838, when Darwin was first thinking of marriage, he made an irresistible series of notes on the subject—a scientific-seeming list of marriage pros and cons. … In favor of marriage, he included the acquisition of a “constant companion and friend in old age” and, memorably and conclusively, decided that a wife would be “better than a dog, anyhow.”
Here’s Lehrer’s version, from the proposal:
In July 1838, Charles Darwin considered the possibility of marriage in his scientific notebook. His thoughts quickly took the shape of a list, a balance sheet of reasons to “marry” and “not marry.” The pros of wedlock were straightforward: Darwin cited the possibility of children (“if it please God”), the health benefits of attachment and the pleasure of having a “constant companion (& friend in old age).” A wife, he wrote, was probably “better than a dog anyhow.”
There are three other examples, and this is only ONE PASSAGE OF THE BOOK PROPOSAL. Lehrer seems to be a serial plagiarizer, needing some sort of intervention beyond simple public disgrace, but wouldn't Simon and Schuster Google every single line of the proposal looking to avoid this sort of embarrassment? Lehrer can't help himself (or won't), but that doesn't mean anyone should offer to pay him ever again without fully expecting the same result. There are plenty of smart people out there willing to pontificate in print, throwing together quotes from half-understood research studies without stooping to plagiarism. They might not be as well-known as Lehrer, but at least you might be able to believe for a few moments that a new author might have some integrity.