A keynote speaker at Meeting Professional International’s World Education Conference in St. Louis was embroiled in a plagiarism scandal just one day after his opening speech to the general session on Sunday.
Jonah Lehrer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, resigned from the magazine on Monday after being accused of fabricating quotes in a book and lying about the sources for the quotes.
Chosen in ‘rigorous process’
MPI officials said that Lehrer had been chosen after a “rigorous” process and that his credentials were solid.
“We use third parties to help select speakers, and we also attend other speeches and look into their previous experiences,” said Cindy D’Aoust, COO and interim CEO for MPI.
She noted that aside from being a New Yorker staff writer, Lehrer was a Rhodes Scholar. Lehrer is also the author of several bestselling books, including How We Decide.
"Jonah's resignation from The New Yorker yesterday is a very unfortunate coincidence, but his message presented to our WEC attendees on Sunday is still very relevant,” D’Aoust said.
Another speaker issue
D’Aoust said that MPI faced a speaker issue earlier this year when a presenter from a previous WEC contacted the organization and said a speaker scheduled for this year was using material from the earlier session.
It was investigated and, despite similarity in the titles, was found to be different.
D’Aoust said choosing speakers could be a complex matter.
This week’s scandal involved quotes purportedly from Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer also had been in some trouble last month when he was caught copying his own work from earlier publications and using it for posts on a newly created blog.
WEC attendees who purchased Lehrer's book at the conference can return it for a full refund, MPI said.
Lehrer’s speech, which focused on neuroscience and how new discoveries are teaching people how to approach their work and lives, was “well-received,” according to Kevin Hinton, chairman of MPI.
It was Hinton himself who brought up the news about Lehrer during a town hall session with members designed to address internal issues. It was necessary to talk about Lehrer “in the interest of transparency,” Hinton said.
Meeting likened to cities
The most successful people are those who have “grit,” rather than those who are the smartest or most talented, Lehrer said during his speech. He also extolled the virtues of meetings – saying they were the equivalent of cities, where innovative ideas emerge because people got together.
Lehrer also said that research increasingly shows that innovation comes from teams rather than lone geniuses. Cities rather than companies are the cradle of innovation, he added.
When Steve Jobs founded Pixar Studios he put just two bathrooms in the entire campus, located far from some offices, so that people would meet on the way to, or in, the restrooms, Lehrer said.
“Everybody at Pixar has a great bathroom-breakthrough story,” he commented.
Meetings not obsolete
“Meetings seem so obsolete – plane delays, hassles; you would think people would stay home and watch it all on the screen,” Lehrer said. “But the opposite has happened. Since the invention of Skype, attendance at business conferences has gone up 30%.”
Noting that more people are moving to cities, Lehrer said urban environments create “human friction,” which is essential for innovation. Conversely, as companies get bigger, they get less creative per capita, he said.
“When in doubt, imitate a city," Lehrer concluded.