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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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Help us get to ScienceOnline!

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ScienceOnline2013 is going to be amazing. The seventh annual “unconference” on science and the web, Scio13 is happening in Raleigh, North Carolina from January 30th through February 2nd. Quite serendipitously, Rachel’s 21st birthday is on February 3rd. She’d like to thank the good people of ScienceOnline for throwing her the greatest birthday party of all time. It will also serve as a belated bash for Arielle, whose birthday is on January 2nd.

If you’re not familiar with ScienceOnline, it’s pretty magical. Every January, Raleigh is host to a veritable flood of science communication gurus and junkies. Together, they put together three days of programming in “unconference” style. Everyone who’s been to a conference, especially one in the sciences, knows that the best stuff happens not in the lecture hall, but just outside of it. ScienceOnline brings those conversations to the center of attention. Sessions are proposed in a planning wiki by anyone with a cool idea, commented on and perfected, and then chosen based on group interest and pizzazz. At the conference, moderators start and lead discussions instead of clicking through power points. The result is part brain trust and part slumber party, with a guest list that makes our hearts go all fluttery.

For a young science writer, this conference is a gold mine. A bastion of knowledge. She can finally meet all the writers she follows on Twitter, including that one she cried over a tweet from a couple months back. She can get advice on what to do after grad school. She can learn about cool new science she should be writing about, learn new ways to write about it, and learn how to use new online tools to make sure other people read about it.

Most importantly, she can hug Bora.

So yes: We, Rachel and Arielle, roommates and proud SHERPies, have our hearts set on attending this extraordinary gathering. We’ve already made it through the Survivor-esque registration, so the worst is over. Unfortunately, we still have to pay for it.

SHERP provides us some funds to attend conferences, but we’re trying not to blow it all in our first semester of the program. Instead we’re digging into our own pockets, and asking the good people of the internet to help us out.

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Good luck saying no to these faces…

Our goal is to crowd-fund $700 to cover our hotel and airfare. Anything over that will go towards the cost of our registration, dinner on Friday (the only meal on our own–seriously, Scio is awesome), taxis, and overpriced coffee at LaGuardia. If we actually receive money we can’t use to cover legitimate expense (read: Rachel will not use your money to buy whiskey sours), we’ll hand it back over to ScienceOnline with a donation after the conference.

To shamelessly copy Jacquelyn Gill, who successfully crowd-funded her trip to Raleigh last year, we’re going to pledge to interview one Scio13 attendee for every $100 we raise. Yes, you’ll get to read adorably tag-teamed interviews by the pair of us. All interviews will also feature beautiful photographs by Arielle. . . and throughout the conference, we’ll both be tweeting, blogging, and photographing up a storm.

Other things we’re willing to offer for donations: Baked goods, open-mic serenades, hugs, karaoke partners, drinking buddies, portraits, and more hugs.

Please consider helping us out by donating or sharing this post!

The best way to donate is via paypal: RAFeltman [at] gmail [dot] com. If you’d rather send a donation by mail, email us for our home address.

Thanks for your help!

Update: As of 11.30.12 we have received $495! 

Things I’ve Learned in the First Month of (Science) J-School

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Hello there, readers!

A lot has happened in the past month. I’ve moved to the city, settled into my apartment in Hamilton Heights, and (most importantly) started grad school at SHERP. My blog has been grossly neglected, but hopefully pretty soon some of my early assignments will start making their way onto Scienceline and you’ll no longer have a Rachel-Feltman’s-Awesome-Science-Writing-Shaped hole in your life.

To illustrate my findings, here’s a really tired meme:

 

 

But seriously, here are some things I’ve learned so far:

1. Stephen Hawking runs over journalists’ feet. I must have my foot over by Dr. Hawking as many times as possible in my lifetime.

2. I hate interviews, but I’m not totally terrible at them. Seriously though, I’m a socially awkward person and a child of the 21st century. I don’t even like to order pizza from places that make me talk to them on the phone, and suddenly I have to talk to four or five strangers a week at length. I’m probably going to give myself an ulcer. Good thing I love everything else about the job, yeah? And I think it’ll grow on me. Like a fungus. A flesh-eating fungus.

3. Science writing takes you to really exotic places…Like Long Island.

 

In all seriousness (or at least some seriousness), SHERP is amazing and I’m having a great time. We’re off to Brookhaven for our big overnight tomorrow, and I’ll definitely be posting about it when we get back! Then I’m spending the weekend covering The Maker Faire. It’s just a whirlwind of science journalism over here, folks.