Jonah Lehrer’s NewYorker.com ‘Smart People’ post borrows from earlier WSJ piece

UPDATE: The New Yorker has put Editors’ Notes on five of Jonah Lehrer’s posts. They all close with this line: “We regret the duplication of material.”

Laura Hazard Owen writes on paidContent: “Lehrer shouldn’t be excused for cribbing from himself. But in some ways, it’s not that surprising that it happened.” Why? Because, she says, Big Ideas aren’t unlimited.

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Last Tuesday, The New Yorker posted Jonah Lehrer’s “Why Smart People Are Stupid.” It begins this way:

Jonah Lehrer


Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

For more than five decades, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this and analyzing our answers. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman, the late Amos Tversky, and others, including Shane Frederick (who developed the bat-and-ball question), demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

Last October 15, the Wall Street Journal published a Jonah Lehrer piece headlined “The Science of Irrationality,” It began this way:

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: “A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs 10 cents. This answer is both incredibly obvious and utterly wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and $1.05 for the bat.) What’s most impressive is that education doesn’t really help; more than 50% of students at Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology routinely give the incorrect answer.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this for more than five decades. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way that we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents, Mr. Kahneman and his scientific partner, the late Amos Tversky, demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

I called NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson and asked if he was aware that Lehrer’s June 12 post was a rewrite of his Wall Street Journal piece. He said he wasn’t. He’s now trying to reach Lehrer, who is in California.

Thompson tells Romenesko readers: “It’s a mistake. We’re not happy. It won’t happen again.”

* “Why Smart People Are Stupid” (New Yorker)
* “The Science of Irrationality” (Wall Street Journal)
* June 5: Jonah Lehrer leaves Wired to join The New Yorker (Capital New York)

UPDATE: “A bit of digging by Daily Intel shows that it’s not the first time the prolific Lehrer, who’s contributed to the New York Times Magazine and “Radiolab,” has doubled up,” writes Joe Coscarelli in New York magazine.

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