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.