Jonah Lehrer's self-plagarism

I wrote about Jonah Lehrer's article, Why Smart People Are Stupid, from the New Yorker, a few days ago.  I didn't realize that, at the time, I was also writing about Jonah Lehrer's Wall Street Journal article, The Science of Irrationality. The articles deal with similar topics, and the first several paragraphs are nearly identical.  Lehrer appears to have been doing this in a lot of articles -- recycling chunks of his old work as new.  This is unethical, because if an editor is paying for new content, and you're giving them stuff their customers may have already read, it's pretty close to stealing from your editor.'s article about the ethical breach compares Lehrer to Malcom Gladwell, in that they're similar types of self-promoters -- people who connect a lot of vivid anecdotes and use them to spread ideas, allowing for a strong implication that they are the sources of this wisdom, not just the compilers.

But Gladwell, I’m guessing, would never get caught writing the same words twice. It’s not just that it will piss off your editors. It will also disappoint your customers. If you’re passing yourself off as an idea man, self-plagiarism is bad for the brand.

Ultimately, the Slate piece is charitable, though.  At the end, the suggest that what's happened here is that Lehrer is running on fumes, and made some bad decisions that lead to that state showing.  His transgression is not a failure to be the person he's suggesting himself as, but a failure to position that identity correctly.

Conflicts of interest in journalism are hard to think about.  Gladwell, the Slate article points out, has a 6,300 word disclosure statement talking his way through the issue.  I'll be reading that soon.

It's a difficult career -- it pays terribly, unless you're very high up, and it feels (and, indeed, is) very important.  The various elements of journalistic quality are in pretty direct conflict with each other -- being fair and informative conflicts with being entertaining and with drawing in customers, and both of those elements conflict with one's editors, who expect you to do work that (a.) makes them money, and (b.) keeps them out of trouble.

Lehrer is a professional, though.  He should have a better handle on that balance.

Grit: a measurable personality trait

I watched a Google Author Talk earlier today by Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, a book I have not read. There were a lot of very interesting things in the talk.  Like, apparently brainstorming doesn't work -- it turns out the central premise that you shouldn't criticize people while coming up with ideas actually results in fewer good ideas than people would produce without any collaboration.  The best method, it turns out, is intelligent, constructive criticism. But the most interesting thing I saw in the talk was that, apparently, there's a recognized personality trait called Grit.  Grit describes the quality of sticking through the hard, drudge-like work involved in achieving long-term goals, and it seems to be one of those rare common features among successful people.

Of course, grit isn't a guarantee of success.  Lehrer points out that no matter how dedicated he might be, no amount of grit could get him a place on a professional basketball team.

He also mentions a quiz, by Angela Lee Duckworth, which approximates an individual's level of grit. He says it should be easy to find, but it took me a bit more Googling than I expect most people would put up with. So, here's the direct link.[1. I got a 3.4166666666667, which might be good.  I'm not sure.  It's better than 50%, anyway.  My answers were: 1. mostly, 2. somewhat, 3. somewhat, 4. somewhat, 5. mostly, 6. somewhat, 7. not at all, 8. not at all, 9. somewhat, 10. not much, 11. not much, 12. mostly.]