The Observatory

The bright-young-things hypothesis

The downward spiral of Jonah Lehrer’s career over the last month has shocked his peers and instilled in them a visceral need to understand. Following the revelations of self-plagiarism, outright fabrication, and lying to cover his tracks, we were bewildered. How could such a seemingly talented journalist, and only 31 years old, have thrown it all away?

One theory, proffered by Salon’s Roxane Gay, is that “there is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world.” According to her piece:

Lehrer’s success and this current humiliation, how far he had to fall, is a symptom of a much bigger problem, one that is systemic, one that continues to consistently elevate certain kinds of men simply for being a certain kind of man. Jonah Lehrer fits the narrative we want about a boy genius. He is young, attractive and well educated. He can write a good sentence. He can parse complicated science for the masses and make us feel smarter for finally being able to understand the complexities of the human mind. He is the great white hope.

Gay is absolutely correct about our fixation with bright young things. It’s an obsession that places enormous pressure on aspiring writers. The thing is, most journalists don’t do what Lehrer did despite the twisted system in which they work, and there are problems with the way that Gay applies the bright-young-things hypothesis to Lehrer. First, she wants to add white and male to the equation, and while she’s right that there is still too much gender and racial bias in this industry, I have five words for her: Janet Cooke. Black. Female. Fraud.

Another problem with the hypothesis is its simplicity. Yes, there is a cultural obsession with genius (preferably young, though not necessarily so) and a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world, which sometimes begets the emergence of false idols. But there is genuine virtuosity out there, too, and there’s a reason that we’re attuned to it and hold it aloft once found: Talent is inspiring—usually in a good way.

Lehrer resigns from The New Yorker

Science writer Jonah Lehrer has resigned as a staff writer for The New Yorker following revelations that he made up quotes and misquoted singer Bob Dylan in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, which was released in March.

Monday afternoon, Tablet magazine published the results of an investigation by staff writer Michael C. Moynihan, a self-described “Dylan obsessive” who found three fabricated quotes as well as four examples of misquotation in the first chapter of Imagine. When Moynihan asked Lehrer about the sources of the quotes, Lehrer said that they’d come from exclusive material provided Dylan’s manager, but eventually admitted to Moynihan that he’d been lying.

No sooner had Moynihan’s article appeared online than Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Imagine, released the following statement from Lehrer:

How creativity works? Not like that.

The author of a recent book about how creativity works is finding out the hard way that the answer is more elusive than he imagined.

Jonah Lehrer, one of science journalism’s brightest young stars, was accused of self-plagiarism on Tuesday after critics revealed that he had reused parts of old stories he wrote for other publications in blog posts for The New Yorker. So far, the magazine has appended an editors’ note to the top of six of Lehrer’s eight posts for its website, noting where else the copy had appeared and expressing “regret [for] the duplication of material.”

Lehrer, 31, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment, but “he understands he made a mistake, he’s apologetic, and it won’t happen again,” said The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson, who made a splash when he left features editing in March to manage and expand the magazine’s website.

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