Ethos and The Case of Jonah Lehrer


This month, I began reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, and I was so excited to finally get my hands on the book after such a long wait.  Now that I’m halfway through the book, I learned today that Lehrer was doing a lot of imagining; he made up some of the Bob Dylan quotes from an early chapter in the book, and he lied about it.  He lied a lot.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, “Writer Jonah Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker on Monday after admitting that he had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his nonfiction book Imagine: How Creativity Works. The book has been recalled by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt” (Source).

I stopped reading the book and plan to return it to the library tomorrow.

Ethos is an important concept in my public speaking and presentation class.  It’s about a speaker’s credibility and character; his or her trustworthiness and reputation.  Without ethos, a speaker doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

It’s the same way with the author of a book.  Consider, for example, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.  In this particular case, Lehrer purposefully manipulated information as means to his own personal gain.  He lied in the book by making up false Dylan quotes.  Then, when people began investigating the origin of the quotes, Lehrer lied to cover up his lies.

Andrew Dlugan’s article on ethos is a great place to begin examining why an author’s character and credibility are so important.  In “What is Ethos?,” Dlugan says we can use four characteristics or traits to examine a person’s ethos: trustworthiness; similarity; authority; and reputation or expertise (Source).  Let’s examine the Jonah Lehrer case using these four traits.

First, Lehrer has proven time and time again that he’s untrustworthy.  Can we really read a book and accept the contents of Imagine knowing the author is unethical?  Can we just skip over part of the text, the part with the lies, and still take something from the rest of the text?  I think not.  Once a person has established that he or she can’t be trusted, we call that person’s character and motives into question.  If Lehrer is willing to misrepresent Bob Dylan quotes, what else is he lying about that we haven’t yet discovered?  Why would he lie?  Does he want to manipulate us, his readers?  We can’t take his words as true because he’s proven he can’t be trusted.  Can he regain his trustworthiness?  Can he repair his reputation and be seen as someone with good moral character?

Dlugan writes, “If you are similar to your audience, then your audience will be more receptive to your ideas in the same way that you are more likely to open a door at night if you recognize the voice of the person on the other side” (Source).  The second trait Dlugan defines is similarity.  We certainly don’t feel similarity with Lehrer at this stage because he’s a proven liar, manipulator, and unethical person.  He’s proven that he lacks character and that he’s false and fake.  Since we all consider ourselves “authentic” and “real” people, it’s hard to identify or find similarity with Lehrer.

Third, Lehrer lost all previous authority on writing or being a writer since this incident.  Do you think a person can regain his or her authority after such a grave misstep?  How could Lehrer regain his authority?  Fourth, and finally, Lehrer’s reputation is ruined.  Any accolades he had and any recognition from Imagine will be forgotten.  Instead, people will only associate “liar” with Lehrer’s name.

Would you read Imagine knowing what we now know about Jonah Lehrer?



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