Fabrication and plagiarism are what got him fired, and I suppose it has to be that way, but there's an unpleasant corollary: had he been a more careful or even just a less prolific bullshitter, he would still be a celebrated star of science writing.
I was referring to what Lehrer said about Bob Dylan and "Like a Rolling Stone". His narrative about Dylan's biography and his creative process was totally off – not consistent with what even a casual fan like myself has picked up over the years. It wasn't just a little odd here and there, it was screamingly wrong. The idea that Dylan got stuck between "Bringing it all back home" (March 1965) and "Highway 61 Revisited" (Aug 1965) is laughable – that was the middle of the greatest creative rampage of his career, his annus mirabilis. Everybody knows that that manic phase peaked in "Blonde on Blonde" (1966) and the crash happened afterward. Lehrer's fairy tale about how Dylan was going to quit music (!) but it turned out he just needed to take a little rest and then, boom, a creative outpouring and out came "Like a Rolling Stone", was silly. Dylan had been pouring out material in that way for years. Lehrer's thing about how there had been only two kinds of pop song and Dylan finally put them together in "Like a Rolling Stone" is cringeworthy, the kind of thing you would tolerate in a precocious adolescent until you could take him off to one side and tell him to knock it off and learn something. Then there were howlers like claiming that while writing the song Dylan coined the term "juiced" to mean "drunk". That was as ignorant as Gladwell's "igon values" but worse, since it indicates a readiness to make shit up to fit your narrative.
My point is that these things weren't just wrong, they were obvious concoctions. And someone who would bullshit that much about one thing would clearly bullshit about anything. If he hadn't fabricated quotes and plagiarized, that would still be the case. And it's not like people didn't call him on it, even before he got caught on the no-nos .
What bugs me, and I'm almost done, is that Lehrer's editors and patrons were quite happy for him to propagate this kind of thing. Not in a "sure it's crap but we need material" way, but in a "take a look at this! he's a wunderkind!" way. Had he not gotten grandiosely sloppy, he'd not only still be doing it, he'd still be widely praised for doing it. He'd be in that elite group of repeat guests on Fresh Air, maybe even the super-elite who are allowed to say "thank you" when Terry says "Welcome back to Fresh Air". So to me this was a little like a criminal who eventually got busted on a technicality.
 http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/103912/bo.... To say something positive: yay to Isaac Chotiner for being the one who nailed this stuff on its essential crappiness rather than its accidental transgressions. Plus he wrote a good piece about P.G. Wodehouse: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/06/the-esca..., so I'm going to watch for him in the future. Perhaps the New Yorker could hire him :)
After having read Glieck's Chaos years ago, I thought I would pick up "Tipping Point" at the library. Before I got to the door, checking through a few pages, I realized I would be physically unable to read the book, because it was just wrong. In the way that trying to reason about free body diagrams without having any math is going to be wrong. Or to do eigenvalues without understanding arithmetic in the complex plane. Let alone igon values.
If anything, the eigen/igon thing just tells me that unlike many popsci writers, Gladwell is at least out there talking to people and trying to report. Bear in mind that Gladwell makes no pretense to actually being a scientist (unlike Lehrer). He's a journalist by training. I am given to understand from a great conversation I had earlier this week that it is not necessarily reasonable to assume that physicists have mastered linear algebra. So, in that spirit, it is not reasonable to expect journalists to understand linear algebra simply to report on quantitative finance.
As for Gladwell, he's a good storyteller, and part of what makes him interesting is that he glides so smoothly between things that we expect to be made up and things we trust to be factual. If Lehrer is a petty criminal then Gladwell is a master art thief. Bet he'd like that analogy.
I don't intend to win a debate here. :)
(To avoid circularity I might add that, if the "igon value" thing really is inapt, that would be a counterexample to my "cultural justice" theory, which is okay since I only thought of it this morning.)
In general, I think storytelling and factual fidelity are at odds with one another. They're incommensurable and can't even really be balanced. What we most want is stories, but we also want them to be true, which is impossible, so we do a lot of complicated ritual dances around that, and get angry when someone breaks the dance rules.
The problem to me is more one of leading an audience to where the conclusions sound nice, but are either dubious, or, as in the case of Tipping Point, far short of the beauty of more informed explanation.
This was a pretty interesting article in itself to read.
Shocking part is so many people are just falling for this argument without thinking about it. As well as those who think about it, and to join in the thrills of a witch hunt, justify to themselves that this self-plagiarization is not just a real thing, but unethical behavior bordering on criminal.
Fabricating quotes and making up facts though is bad and justifies firing and blacklisting. Both practices are unfortunately endemic within contemporary publications, perhaps due to a lack of fact checkers at many publishers.
Nobody in the media is "just falling" for the idea of "self-plagiarizing"; in virtually every place I've seen this issue covered, there's been extensive scrutiny of the idea of "self-plagiarism" and where it ranks in the catalog of literary sins.
This post is yet another example of the "middlebrow dismissal":
It is all well and good to grapple with the idea of whether and how "self-plagiarizing" is a real offense. But to do so in a comment like yours, dismissing it as herd thinking and witch hunting, is lazy and ill-informed. Your comment has as its premise something that is actually the opposite of the truth; ironically, it distracts from the real controversy of how big a deal self-plagiarism is by pretending that there is no such controversy.
What's not OK is to pass off work from some other source as original or novel.
Three cases of slightly rewording other people's blog posts. Full text here, and is very clearly plagiarism.
It's likely that a highly paid writer would be expected to produce unique pieces, and not to resell the ones paid for.
Writing pieces on your blog and then using paragraphs in a e-newsletter would not fall under this definition.
I read the article closely, and I was also struck by the similarity of what he was trying to what Malcolm Gladwell does. And the end of the article the parallel is made very clearly.
But I would have been drawing the parallel anyways, and in fact was well before the article twisted that way.
The latter allegations --- that Gladwell's stories are too pat, and that they exclude contradictory evidence --- amount to Gladwell being "wrong" about things. But being wrong isn't a journalistic crime; journalists, columnists, and essayists are wrong all the time. It's disingenuous to lay that case out in an article about someone who committed real journalistic crimes: fabrication and plagiarism. In the actual NYMag piece, the case against Gladwell consists largely of innuendo: that he gives a lot of high-priced talks, that in marketing himself and The New Yorker, he created a brand that he can milk for his own personal gain. Well, we all milk things for our personal gain; it's called "having a career".
Undoubtedly, Lehrer's journalistic crimes are pretty serious, and shouldn't be compared to Gladwell. And you're right that having a brand is no crime :) .
There's also lots of blogs written by laypeople or former researchers who carefully distill and contextualize individual scientific papers, such as many of the folks at Discover Magazine blogs (Phil Plait, Ed Yong).
Moreover, there's a larger problem of lay journalists, public, and many university PR people treating every bit of research as a groundbreaking answer to a huge question, when the reality is that each paper is merely a bit of dialog in a massive conversation about the nature of our universe. This leads the public to become rightfully distrusting of the massive overstatements, and therefore tragically disinterested in the nuanced conversation behind it all.
So perhaps the single best thing to do is become part of the conversation! Follow authors and bloggers on social media, talk to your friends in science, furrow your brow at bombastic university press releases and seek the nuance. This will lead you to the best books, articles, and science communicators out there.
More seriously: you're probably ok with books written by scientists who are respected as scientists, such as Kahneman mentioned in the article. But be very wary of books written by journalists.
If I can't find the original research, I try to treat the information as tainted, because even honest and intelligent writers often oversimplify concepts when presenting them to a lay audience.
“I’m writing something about the mistake and affair myself, if only so I can learn from the failing, and I’d prefer not to talk until my writing is done.”
Lehrer should have lied about things that have been politicized for economic gain, like climate change, economics or medical science. Then when you get called on it you have well funded groups with media clout ready to support you.
I agree the double standard is ridiculous, but I don't find it surprising.
Climate change is verifiable, but not easily, and most evidence is unfortunately circumstantial. Furthemore, the significance of what this means is not settled, which makes the issue political rather than scientific.