The Gell-Mann amnesia effect

I spotted this in a tweet from Abe List yesterday, and love the idea. The original source is a speech by Michael Crichton (which is worth reading in itself).

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

My general news consumption is deliberately low due to a combination of mistrust and a desire to read and think about things that matter.

3 comments

  1. Hahahaha … what a delightful way to start the day and week, Jason. I have been puzzling over what I now know is the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect since my first high profile project in 1970. At last — only 45 years later! — I know what to call it .. and it’s such a relief. Many thanks, L.
    =D

  2. There is an alternative explanation.

    It might be that when it comes to subject areas a person is already an expert in the information is not of sufficient quality to be useful.

    Meanwhile in subject areas where one is not an expert the information is good enough to be worth reading.

    I have noticed this with travel guide books. When I read one about an area I have lived in the content is laughable, both misleading and superficial. No doubt guide books from areas I haven’t lived are just as bad, but they are still gold when travelling in those areas.

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