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Say It To My Face, Jonah Lehrer

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Today, Jonah Lehrer gave the final address at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar. For an hour, he spoke about his journalistic transgressions over the course of the past few years, which came to light over the summer.

He was paid $20,000 for his time. 

What struck me the most wasn’t Lehrer’s robotic, characteristically arrogant speech, but one of the questions posed by a conference attendee. She stated flippantly that Lehrer’s plagiarism affected her less than a “typo on Wikipedia,” and didn’t understand why people expected public apology for something that didn’t specifically hurt them.

Alrighty then. Let’s talk about how Jonah Lehrer has hurt the journalism community. Come on, raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by Regina George.

First of all, the public inherently trusts successful journalists, especially ones hired as staff writers for publications as reputable as The New Yorker. Should people be skeptical of everything they read? Yes! Please, be skeptical. Should readers have to wonder if every word written in a magazine they trust is a lie or a fabrication? Dear god, I hope not.

A screencap from our furious twitter rampage

A screencap from our furious twitter rampage

Lehrer was a public darling. I was never a fan of his writing (I found it over simplified and written with a cocky tone that rubbed me the wrong way) but I always appreciated how good he was at playing into what the mainstream wanted to read. To end up in a position like that and then abuse it is to tarnish public view of journalistic morality. Permanently.

Let’s get more specific, shall we? Lehrer wrote about science. Science journalists have another layer of public trust to navigate, because science has gotten a reputation for being confusing, boring, and elitist. It’s hard to get the public listening to you when you talk about science, and Lehrer had his finger on the pulse. So yes, I do feel that there’s something wrong with Lehrer ending up on a science journalism pedestal and then making shit up, pulling quotes out of thin air, and muddling facts so that they fit the narrative he knows will sell a book. Personally.

One more thing. Jonah Lehrer’s behavior was offensive to me. Specifically me. Me, and every other young, emerging science journalist. Do you know how unobtainable a staff position at The New Yorker is, especially for a science writer, in the age of dying print and literary cutbacks? I would cut out my own kidney if it got me a regular blog on Wired, let alone a longterm print contract. The respect, stability, and readership attached to that gig is the sort of thing I’m afraid to even dream of. Jonah Lehrer got it, and he abused it. He recycled old pieces. He copy and pasted from others’ work. He didn’t provide the content he was being paid to provide.

If he hadn’t been caught, that job would still be his–and that would be one less staff position for a young science writer willing to actually write about science.

Did tweeting live zingers about Lehrer while he spoke make me feel better about what he’d done? Not really. Especially now that I know how much money he made for his lackluster public apology.

Find a new playing field, Lehrer. The other kids don’t want you here anymore. 

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I love waking up to bad science in the morning paper

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There’s a story on the front page of today’s Philadelphia Inquirer that really frosts my flakes. Titled “A huge step on genome of fetuses” in our edition, it’s actually (disconcertingly) a Times piece. Not that I think poorly of the staff writers in Philly, but I know the paper is constantly paring down and I wouldn’t be surprised if their science kept getting shoddier as a result. 

Let’s get right to the meat of the issue: “That would allow thousands of genetic diseases to be detected prenatally. But the ability to know so much about an unborn child is likely to raise serious ethical concerns as well. It could increase abortions for reasons that have little to do with medical issues and more to do with parental preference for traits in children.”

Woah. Hold up. That’s your fourth line? Really? That’s what’s important here? Pollack doesn’t even begin to describe the tech until a few paragraphs later, and it only gets a sentence before he jumps back to describing current technologies in length. But not every article is written for people who want in-depth explanations of scientific method, so let’s ignore that. 

Even so, Pollack’s decision to focus on the fact that this technology “could cause” an increase in abortions for what he thinks are the wrong reasons is an example of a journalist TOTALLY MISSING THE POINT and being a bit of an ass to boot. He mentions Tay-Sachs, but gives no voice to parents who watched their children die in infancy of the painful disease. He quotes Marcy Darnovsky, a representative from an organization that focuses on sex-selective abortion, without explaining why she’s worth quoting on the issue. Let’s just say that I’m not surprised that the Times didn’t link to her website in the online version of the article. She’s a woman with an opinion, and there’s no data to back this up.

Just so it’s clear that this isn’t (all) about my personal offense at the tone taken in this article, which I feel does a disservice to what could be an amazing breakthrough and condescends to parents in the difficult position of screening for genetic abnormalities. This article could have been written about the possible risks of the technology, and written well. When I gasped at that first line about an increase in abortions, I was expecting to turn the page and see some numbers. 

What percentage of amniotic genetic tests result in abortions? How many complications from testing end pregnancies each year? I was unable to find a link to the story, but a couple years ago a genetic clinic was penalized for offering just the kind of “trait selection” services that Pollack seems concerned about, but there was no mention of that situation (highly relevant, I think!) in the article. 

This is not meant to be a coherent letter to the editor.

That’s coming later today when I’ve had enough coffee to be something other than really, really annoyed.