As I start my third week on the Tracker, I’ve begun to learn about some potential hazards. One problem is the risk of overlap. It’s easy to get all excited about a post only to see that someone else on the Tracker has it covered. Luckily there are some issues that can accomodate multiple viewpoints.
One good example is the Jonah Lehrer saga. For those of us who were never enamored of his science writing, the guy has become much more entertaining now that he’s crashing and burning. He’s the summer blockbuster disaster movie of the science writing community.
So I eagerly devoured the latest revelation – a Slate piece about an investigation into Lehrer’s Wired.com blog posts. The investigator was science writer Charles Seife, and this brings up another hazard of tracking, which is that many of the characters in these stories are personal friends. (Though that may no longer be the case after I’ve critiqued enough pieces)
In the interest of full disclosure, I had been friends with Charles Seife back in the 1990s. Seife is a journalist and a journalism professor at NYU. He has a math background, if I remember correctly, and he’s written some terrific books on mathematical topics.
Sure, there’s been a lot written about Lehrer, but this new piece elevated the issue from festival of Schadenfreude to an important reminder of what journalists are supposed to be doing and why. It comes just in time, as new forms of journalism have blurred lines and muddied old rules.
Seife took a sample of 18 blog posts (out of several hundred) and came up with a bountiful haul of Lehrer wrongdoing and sleaze. And then Seife helpfully navigated some of those ethical gray areas, such as recycling one’s own work. His bottom line was that such practices constitute ethical violations if there’s deliberate deception involved. If you know readers are expecting fresh, original material and you serve them table scraps from the night before, you’re not playing straight with them.
Seife confused me in his “issues with facts” section. In one paragraph, he calls a factual error “piddling” when it seemed like a pretty major goof:
"Psychologist Daniel Bor levels a very similar accusation. In 2009, Bor pointed out a piddling little error in a story that Lehrer had written for Nature—Lehrer claimed that a person had memorized the entire “Divine Comedy” after a quick read-through; in fact, the man had memorized only a few stanzas. Lehrer not only didn't correct the mistake, but republished it not once but twice in his Wired.com blog."
Maybe what Seife meant by piddling was that the error wasn’t necessarily deliberate. It’s easy to see how it could stem from a miscommunication with the scientist. We all make mistakes but it is telling that Lehrer’s errors are so much more exciting than the truth would have been.
What’s left to explain is why Lehrer rose so fast when there are so many great science writers out there. Did Lehrer carry off a brilliant investigation that revealed some long-hidden scandal? Was he funny? Did he routinely pull off poetic turns of phrase? Why did so many prominent science editors fall for him?