It's comical, but no real surprise, that pop-science plagiarist and fabricator Jonah Lehrer appears to have lifted someone else's work for his new book proposal. Lehrer has established by now that he is a pathological fraud. The question on the table is: What kind of a fraud is Jonathan Karp, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, which bought the book?
Jonathan Karp is unquestionably a fraud. His decision to buy Lehrer's proposal—not quite 11 months after Lehrer was exposed as a journalist crook, forcing the pulping of his last book—makes him and Simon & Schuster Lehrer's de facto co-conspirators.
Even before Slate's Daniel Engber flagged the similarity between Lehrer's proposal and passages from Adam Gopnik, it was obvious that Lehrer was unreformed. The New York Times got a copy of the proposal yesterday and quoted passages from it, including one narrating the moment when Lehrer found out that other people had found out that he was a fraud:
“I feel the shiver of a voice-mail message,” he wrote... “I listen to the message. I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry. Why was I crying? I had been caught in a lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes. And now it was clear that, within 24 hours, my fall would begin. I would lose my job and my reputation. My private shame would become public.”
"Recycling bin" is a hilarious choice of detail, for the compulsive plagiarist. And, obviously: Bring us two witnesses who saw you puke when and where you claim you puked.
Or don't bother. Even this little passage demonstrates that Lehrer is still using his writing to deceive and manipulate: "I had been caught in a lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes." This is three-card monte. Lehrer was caught in a lie because he was trying to conceal not "mistakes" but a longstanding, not at all desperate program of lying, which was the foundation of his career.
As Lehrer's portfolio and reputation fell apart last year—or seemed to be falling apart—a certain idiotic subset of his defenders accused his critics of being "jealous." It was a better word choice than they meant it to be, in the sense that the Old Testament God is a jealous god: Lehrer was and remains a threat to people who want to make a living as journalists, because he found success as a fake journalist. This success came at other people's expense.
Writing about science is difficult, skilled work. It requires a reporter to genuinely understand complicated subjects, to derive clear meaning from material rife with caveats and confounding variables and false positives. The facts can stubbornly refuse to fit the story.
Lehrer found the hack to solve this problem: He stole other writers' accounts of the facts, or he made up facts of his own to suit the argument. This is what made him so glib, so fast, and so commercially appealing. He could produce work at several times the pace of the sluggards who did the real work. And when even he couldn't produce it speedily enough to meet demand, he would just copy-paste something he'd published before. The real science writers grumbled all along about how sloppy and wrong he was, but who even listened? They weren't famous.
As Hamilton Nolan wrote when Lehrer's troubles were beginning, Jonah Lehrer does not actually know how to do journalism. He is a counterfeiter. He is not a smooth writer with a regrettable habit of cutting corners—the cut corners are what make the writing smooth. The smoothness is what plays on the lecture circuit. The bogus product is his only product.
And it's the product that Simon & Schuster has now agreed to buy, in the hopes of selling it to more people. Lehrer cranked out a 65-page book proposal, offering an 80,000-word manuscript that will range freely across a vast landscape of knowledge. There's no scaling back to reflect a newly acquired epistemological or professional modesty. It's the same unearned assurance he's been peddling all along. The scam hasn't changed; Jonathan Karp just wants in on it.
"We believe in second chances," Karp told the Times. Again, less than a year has passed since Jonah Lehrer had to leave his New Yorker job. Less than a year has passed since his previous publisher had to withdraw his book on creativity, Imagine, because of its fake Bob Dylan quotes. This is not a second chance, it's an extension on his first chance.
Lehrer's first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, came out in 2007. His second, How We Decide, came out in 2009. His third, the one that got him in trouble, came out in 2012. If he delivers his manuscript on time, in the fall of 2014, the book should arrive on shelves in 2015, precisely on his established schedule, as if nothing had happened.
The subject of this one, according to Slate and the Times, will be love. Lehrer wrote that his downfall, such as it was, taught him—swiftly!—that love is what matters. As the Times quotes:
“Careers fall apart; homes fall down; we give away what we don’t want and sell what we can’t afford,” he wrote. “And yet, if we are lucky, such losses reveal what remains. When we are stripped of what we wanted, we see what we will always need: those people who love us, even after the fall.”
“This book is about what has lasted in my own life,” he wrote. “I wanted to write it down so that I would not forget; so that, one day, I might tell my young daughter what I’ve learned.”
One thing Lehrer certainly did learn is the scumbag tactic of hiding behind his young daughter, of using the fact that his semen once landed on an egg to certify himself as a serious and meaningful human being. Actual scientific fact: Lots of people—billions of people—make babies. A narcissistic con man who makes a baby is a narcissistic con man with a baby.
And but aside from his poor daughter/moral prop, what else has remained for Jonah Lehrer, now that transitory things have gone? What was it that lasted? Well, a $20,000 speaking fee from the Knight Foundation, for starters. And now a brand-new book contract, and with any luck, a new audience of suckers. What does love mean? Love—to coin a catchy, original phrase—means never having to say you're sorry.