Jonah Lehrer Breaks Silence at $20,000 Speaking Engagement

Jonah Lehrer Imagine Book - P 2012

Jonah Lehrer Imagine Book - P 2012

The disgraced New Yorker writer who fabricated Bob Dylan quotes blames his downfall on "arrogance" and "having a high IQ."

Jonah Lehrer, the author and journalist disowned by his publisher and dismissed from a plum writing gig at The New Yorker after it was revealed he had fabricated quotes, plagiarized material and freely recycled his own writing, has addressed the affair for the first time in a public speaking engagement for which he was paid a reported $20,000.

A photogenic and charismatic 31-year-old, Lehrer was the envy of his profession until the moment he fell from grace. A new book atop the New York Times best-seller list all but ensured him a Malcolm Gladwell-level career, earning huge sums delivering sermons on the kinds of buzzy sociological concepts that fuel the TED Conference circuit.

But his deception began to unravel after Michael Moynihan of Tablet magazine accused Lehrer of having made up quotes by Bob Dylan to service ideas he presented in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.

The Knight Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to furthering "ideas that promote quality journalism," hosted Tuesday's Miami event, for which Lehrer received $20,000. A Knight spokesperson tells Poynter the sum is "an honorarium" typical of what any speaker at a Knight event might receive.

Lehrer began his remarks by acknowledging his lies: "I’m the author of a book on creativity that contained several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes," he said. "I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking without credit or citation an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I plagiarized from myself. I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications."

He went on to say that arrogance and a "tendency to believe my own excuses" led to his downfall, and assured the audience that any of his future writings would "be fact-checked and fully footnoted." Lehrer repeatedly referred to his revised policy of total honesty as a new "standard operating procedure" -- a familiar and weighted phrase with military, healthcare and other institutional connotations.

He also alluded to his own heightened intelligence as being partly to blame: "Being smart, having a high IQ, can actually make you more vulnerable to [biases]," he said. "Self-awareness is not enough, not even close." Lehrer says he considered giving up writing altogether after the scandal, but now he is "trying to write for a few hours every day," an act that helps him make "sense of the world."

To put a meta-spin on the mea culpa, a projection of real-time Twitter responses to the speech, broadcast live over the Internet, contained multiple criticisms of Lehrer.

One came from Moynihan himself, who wrote, "Staffer at Wired [magazine] told me that mag wanted JL to write 'the science of why I lied.' Apparently this is that piece." Forbes executive editor Michael Noer and reporter Jeff Bercovici singled him out for scorn, as did The Washington Post Magazine editor Joe Heim, who called Lehrer's talk "boring."

"For 20k, I think Jonah Lehrer could have made up a much more interesting speech than the one he gave," Helm said.