Jonah Lehrer just landed a job at the New Yorker—one of the most coveted jobs in all of journalism—and already he's fucking up. Lehrer? You're fucking up.
Jim Romenesko pointed out today that in a June 12 blog post for The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer plagiarized the shit out of himself. Specifically, the first three paragraphs are lifted almost word-for-word from this story that Lehrer wrote for the Wall Street Journal last October. (And Joe Coscarelli turned up several other instances of self-plagiarism by Lehrer.)
Is this episode made all the more delicious by the fact that the substance of the plagiarism in question consists of an anecdote about irrationality and "our fondness for not thinking?" Yes it is.
One appropriate response to this incident is to say, "This raises some very interesting philosophical questions about whether 'self-plagiarism' is really even possible. Can we steal from ourselves?" But that response is only appropriate after you've already said, "Of course, the fucking New Yorker, of all places, does not hire a writer—especially not a writer whose whole schtick is writing about 'the mind' and other smart-guy topics—so that they can republish his warmed-over old material that's already run in other places." The fact that Lehrer has apparently done this before is bad; once is an oversight, but several times is a pattern. A pattern of self-plagiarism can only mean A) a wanton disregard for the rules, or B) outright stupidity. I don't think Jonah Lehrer is stupid. (Though he really should stop writing about sports.)
A good rule of thumb for writers who are concerned about whether they're reusing too much old material is to simply ask themselves, "Would my editor be okay if I told him how much of this is reused?" The answer will be "no," so then you can stop reusing things, you lazy bum. In the event that the answer is "yes," you probably work somewhere near the bottom of the media barrel, like at an internet blog. Sorry.
We favor grace and redemption, so we would never advocate for Lehrer's outright firing and replacement with another young, internet-savvy writer, but we cannot stop The New Yorker from doing something like that, and that's the sad part.
Update: All five of Johan Lehrer's blog posts for The New Yorker now have editor's notes pinned to them. Prediction: The New Yorker is hiring!