Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

This is brilliant and I can't believe it has taken me over a decade to hear about it. Great exposition by Michael Crichton.

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.

d-edreckoning.blogspot.hk/2006/10/wet-streets-cause-rain.html

3 thoughts on “Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

  1. There could be another possible explanation – the lack of alternative, more reliable, easily discoverable and comprehensible sources of information. For many people, it’s simpler just to stick with the papers. One just hopes (probably in vain) these people can take them with a pinch of salt.

  2. I’ve been struck by this myself from time to time. However, I think it’s also important we acknowledge the other possibility: that our expertise in a field means we can’t see the wood for the trees. So we forget that essentials matter more than details and start to assume that mistakes or omissions of the latter demonstrate a misunderstanding of the former — or even worse, focus on the latter while ignoring the former. I see this kind of professional pedantry quite a lot in my day job, with people getting very agitated about arcane definitional issues because it avoids having to think about the basics.

  3. I’ve been struck by this myself from time to time. However, I think it’s also important we acknowledge the other possibility: that our expertise in a field means we can’t see the wood for the trees. So we forget that essentials matter more than details and start to assume that mistakes or omissions of the latter demonstrate a misunderstanding of the former — or even worse, focus on the latter while ignoring the former. I see this kind of professional pedantry quite a lot in my day job, with people getting very agitated about arcane definitional issues because it avoids having to think about the basics.

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