Blog Post

Jonah Lehrer, self-borrowing and the problem with “big ideas”

Newly appointed New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer — author of the bestselling books “Imagine,” “How We Decide” and “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and a former editor at Wired — has been recycling a bunch of his own content in pieces for various publishers. Jim Romenesko discovered the first example — a New Yorker blog post that uses the opening from a 2011 WSJ piece — Joe Coscarelli at New York Magazine’s Daily Intel has more, and Jacob Silverman has more.

Lehrer shouldn’t be excused for cribbing from himself. But it’s not that surprising that it happened.

“Big ideas” aren’t unlimited

Jonah Lehrer, in the model of fellow New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, is a “big ideas” writer. He writes books that center around a counterintuitive or provocative theme, and explains why things are not as they seem. Books like these are often really popular.

So far, the criticism toward Lehrer has centered around the fact that he copied his own sentences, but copying ideas and themes is also problematic. There is not unlimited material for this kind of pop science writing. It varies in quality, a lot. Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” was better than his later books like “Outliers,” partly because the idea behind “The Tipping Point” was better and the examples were fresher. (Similarly, when Malcolm Gladwell tried to apply the counterintuitive thing to protests in Egypt and Tunisia, people got mad.)

It is tough to come up with new, fresh material that advances a counterintuitive thesis. It’s even tougher to repeatedly come up with those new “wow, I never looked at it that way” ideas. And when you do come up with those ideas, it’s probably more tempting to recycle them.

Writing isn’t public speaking

Authors like Lehrer and Gladwell do a lot of public speaking along with writing gigs. (Here are some of Lehrer’s public appearances.) In public speaking, borrowing from yourself isn’t such a bad thing. Many public speakers recycle material from one presentation to the next. Presumably, they tailor that material depending on whom they’re speaking to, and don’t give the same presentation to the same group twice. (Slate’s Josh Levin points to Malcolm Gladwell’s disclosure about how he handles his obligations to the New Yorker versus his obligations as a public speaker.)

Lehrer’s self-borrowing is easy to discover because he has written for a lot of high-profile publications — Wired, the New Yorker, the New York Times — that attract similar audiences. The examples discovered so far are vivid and memorable — the logic puzzles, the “love making.” That could mean that there is a lot more similar content waiting to be discovered, but it’s clear that Lehrer tends to repeat similar memorable themes. That’s not so bad in his role as a public speaker, but it’s problematic for a journalist.

Lehrer recently did a video interview with GigaOM’s Chris Albrecht. It’s below.

9 Responses to “Jonah Lehrer, self-borrowing and the problem with “big ideas””

  1. It’s not just problematic, it’s bad for the idea sphere. He should have just included links to the original article and then wrapped new thoughts around it. The readers are robbed of the connection and any comments written on the first piece.

  2. What I liked about this article is that it made me think about my own writing and others’ works. Think we all self-borrow, as needed, to make valid points and continue on them, but also because there was something about our writing that worked and still resonates. we all recycle from time to time, but it’s our ability make it fresh and relevant that defines our worth.

  3. Greg Satell

    I don’t see a problem with this. While I can see how the example Nicola gave below, when speakers completely recycle an entire talk, taking bits from past writings isn’t the same.

    I do it sometimes in my blog. I come to a point I’ve discussed before, look back, see what I wrote and cut and paste. Often, I make some minor edits to adapt to the new text.

    What’s the objection? I certainly am not stealing it. Nor should anyone find it strange that I still stand by thoughts that I had previously.

    What’s the alternative? When I come to a point that I have made before should I ignore the fact that I have written something on it? Or should I simply re-word it so that it reads sufficiently different from something I wrote weeks or months ago.

    What would be accomplished? I have better ways to spend my time.

    – Greg

    • Jonathan Gitlin

      You recycling content on your own blog is not the same as recycling content that was paid for by Wired (who own the IP) and selling it to the New Yorker.

      • Jonathan, in this case, was Jonah not allowed to resell his work to other publications? Did he sell his original articles under the assumption they wouldn’t be reprinted anywhere else? If he didn’t have those rights… that’s wrong. But, if he had those rights to resell his work, then why is this an issue?

  4. Nicola Arnold

    I saw him speak to two separate (very different) audiences in the space of a week, and both were word for word (every anecdote, every answer to every question) identical. He may as well have mimed to a taped recording.

  5. David Thomas

    Eh, comics recycle their own material every time they take the stage for a new show. I guess I’m missing whatever is supposed to be significant here. So Lehrer repeats himself or has some favored catch phrases. Show me the public intellectual who doesn’t.