The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

Joe Carter, via a string of other blogs, quotes the late Michael Crichton’s 2002 essay “Why Speculate?”:

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 call 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 works 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 with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story 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.

via The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect « SeekerBlog.

Crichton surely overstated the case when he said that the media has no credibility and that it’s a waste of time to read the newspaper.  Sports scores are reported accurately, as far as I know, and events reported in the news did, one can assume, take place.   Still, the splendidly-named phenomenon described here does apply.  It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s critique of biographical interpretations of literature.  He said that when he reads biographical interpretations of his own works they are invariably wrong, by his first hand knowledge of his life; therefore, he is disinclined to accept biographical interpretations of other authors’ works.  Even here, when we post an article about some scientific discovery, readers who know something about the science explain how the reporters were getting it wrong.

Is there a way to get around this?  Should we trust certain publications or certain journalists more than others?  If bias is inevitable, should we just take in media with whose bias we agree?  Or should we counter our biases with media biased in the other direction?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    What outpost of civilization does Crichton live in that he still reads a newspaper? Do they still print them?

  • Pete

    What outpost of civilization does Crichton live in that he still reads a newspaper? Do they still print them?

  • Pete

    Oh, my bad – this was from back in 2002 when they had newspapers.

  • Pete

    Oh, my bad – this was from back in 2002 when they had newspapers.

  • Dave (in Michigan)

    Same thing with “news” on TV or radio. After a story on something I know about is filled with errors I wonder if I can trust anything they report on, but I notice some people just believe it all.

  • Dave (in Michigan)

    Same thing with “news” on TV or radio. After a story on something I know about is filled with errors I wonder if I can trust anything they report on, but I notice some people just believe it all.

  • Dan Kempin

    “Sports scores are reported accurately, as far as I know, and events reported in the news did, one can assume, take place. ”

    I don’t know. They have been mistakenly reporting that Lou Gehrig holds the single season RBI record for years.

    http://www.timesunion.com/sports/article/Man-driven-to-set-the-record-straight-1459689.php

    Of course, I got that from a news source too. So . . .

    But don’t worry. I heard yesterday that Gaddafi’s government has fallen and he is captured. At least we know THAT is true.

  • Dan Kempin

    “Sports scores are reported accurately, as far as I know, and events reported in the news did, one can assume, take place. ”

    I don’t know. They have been mistakenly reporting that Lou Gehrig holds the single season RBI record for years.

    http://www.timesunion.com/sports/article/Man-driven-to-set-the-record-straight-1459689.php

    Of course, I got that from a news source too. So . . .

    But don’t worry. I heard yesterday that Gaddafi’s government has fallen and he is captured. At least we know THAT is true.

  • Dennis Peskey

    When I took the advanced reporting class in journalism at MSU, the course stipulated a minimum requirement of reading three different newspapers per day. During the howl of protest that ensued, I managed to endear myself to fellow students by asking a clarification of may we read more and is this requirement limited to the same three every day. You may be surprised how many journalists do not read other opinions (other than with the intent to “borrow” ideas or leads). The most sacred articles in a newspaper are the obituaries – screw one of them up and your fired.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Dennis Peskey

    When I took the advanced reporting class in journalism at MSU, the course stipulated a minimum requirement of reading three different newspapers per day. During the howl of protest that ensued, I managed to endear myself to fellow students by asking a clarification of may we read more and is this requirement limited to the same three every day. You may be surprised how many journalists do not read other opinions (other than with the intent to “borrow” ideas or leads). The most sacred articles in a newspaper are the obituaries – screw one of them up and your fired.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Dan Kempin

    On a more serious note than my previous, I think there is a natural bias to believe what we are told unless we have a reason to suspect that the person or the information is untrustworthy. That applies to conversation just as much as it does media, so I don’t think there is anything particularly surprising in the “MGM Amnesia Effect,” except, perhaps, as a caution to be a bit more responsible in checking the information ourselves, if it is important to us.

  • Dan Kempin

    On a more serious note than my previous, I think there is a natural bias to believe what we are told unless we have a reason to suspect that the person or the information is untrustworthy. That applies to conversation just as much as it does media, so I don’t think there is anything particularly surprising in the “MGM Amnesia Effect,” except, perhaps, as a caution to be a bit more responsible in checking the information ourselves, if it is important to us.

  • WebMonk

    I trust (for certain values of trust) publications that are at least somewhat specialized in a topic and are writing on that topic.

    So, when The Economist writes about international finance and the repercussions of some event, I give them pretty good trust, realizing that economists and financiers aren’t always in agreement, and this topic might be in one of those areas where experts disagree. However, I trust it to be a solid factual piece with at least a solid set of reasoning behind it for the extrapolations.

    Pretty much anything in the WaPo, WaTimes, or any other generic newspaper, I trust that they are accurately stating that something is happening. Beyond that … virtually no trust.

    Wikipedia gets an in-between level of trust. On basic facts I trust them very highly. On any sort broad-picture summary of events, they have variable trust depending on the topic.

  • WebMonk

    I trust (for certain values of trust) publications that are at least somewhat specialized in a topic and are writing on that topic.

    So, when The Economist writes about international finance and the repercussions of some event, I give them pretty good trust, realizing that economists and financiers aren’t always in agreement, and this topic might be in one of those areas where experts disagree. However, I trust it to be a solid factual piece with at least a solid set of reasoning behind it for the extrapolations.

    Pretty much anything in the WaPo, WaTimes, or any other generic newspaper, I trust that they are accurately stating that something is happening. Beyond that … virtually no trust.

    Wikipedia gets an in-between level of trust. On basic facts I trust them very highly. On any sort broad-picture summary of events, they have variable trust depending on the topic.

  • WebMonk

    Dan @4, I was about to give you a proper flaming when I heard your statement about Gaddafi. Fortunately I realized you were joking before I started typing.

    News service handling of that has been particularly galling to me.

  • WebMonk

    Dan @4, I was about to give you a proper flaming when I heard your statement about Gaddafi. Fortunately I realized you were joking before I started typing.

    News service handling of that has been particularly galling to me.

  • SKPeterson

    I read this post earlier today. What are we talking about?

  • SKPeterson

    I read this post earlier today. What are we talking about?

  • Joanne

    Back in the late 70s, in Ft. Lauderdale, I appeared fairly often in family court with foster cildren. Judge Alcee Hastings served then as one of the juvenile judges that I most perferred to appear before. His decisions were as humane as the law allowed.

    However, on several occasions I liaised with reporters who showed up to cover the cases. News reports appeared then that bore no resemblance to the case, no matter how much effort I put into giving the reporter solid information. However, the reports were really good news, i.e. newsy news. They were a great news product. You see, sometimes reporters showed up for stories that weren’t interesting, but could be if related with literary skill.

    Since those days, I’ve had several of those experiences with newpaper reporting, as mentioned above, of having personal knowledge of the story being reported and seeing absolute gobbledegook in the newspaper version. But, I had the sense to reason, to question, that if what I knew was wrong, how much of what I didn’t personally know must be wrong too?

    So I developed theories of news. News is a commercial, literary form of gosip usually based on current events, or fictional current events. In its daily serialized form it is soap opera.

    If the facts can be made to fit the needs of the news, then you will get more information into a news report. That last part is what I leared from juvenile court. News is not information, but can contain information whenever that fits the needs of the news.

    Also like another person above, I avoid local and daily coverage. I prefer to get information that is not called news. I like my information from specialized sources and usually from monthlies. Slow down the coverage and get it from people who know and have had time to figure it out. Find people you trust and that you think are intelligent. Know when your information sources have agendas. You’ll get great coverage of the part of the story they believe in, but a blank for the part they can’t see.

    Ignore headlines, they distract.

  • Joanne

    Back in the late 70s, in Ft. Lauderdale, I appeared fairly often in family court with foster cildren. Judge Alcee Hastings served then as one of the juvenile judges that I most perferred to appear before. His decisions were as humane as the law allowed.

    However, on several occasions I liaised with reporters who showed up to cover the cases. News reports appeared then that bore no resemblance to the case, no matter how much effort I put into giving the reporter solid information. However, the reports were really good news, i.e. newsy news. They were a great news product. You see, sometimes reporters showed up for stories that weren’t interesting, but could be if related with literary skill.

    Since those days, I’ve had several of those experiences with newpaper reporting, as mentioned above, of having personal knowledge of the story being reported and seeing absolute gobbledegook in the newspaper version. But, I had the sense to reason, to question, that if what I knew was wrong, how much of what I didn’t personally know must be wrong too?

    So I developed theories of news. News is a commercial, literary form of gosip usually based on current events, or fictional current events. In its daily serialized form it is soap opera.

    If the facts can be made to fit the needs of the news, then you will get more information into a news report. That last part is what I leared from juvenile court. News is not information, but can contain information whenever that fits the needs of the news.

    Also like another person above, I avoid local and daily coverage. I prefer to get information that is not called news. I like my information from specialized sources and usually from monthlies. Slow down the coverage and get it from people who know and have had time to figure it out. Find people you trust and that you think are intelligent. Know when your information sources have agendas. You’ll get great coverage of the part of the story they believe in, but a blank for the part they can’t see.

    Ignore headlines, they distract.

  • http://mikeerich.blogspot.com Mike Erich The Mad Theologian

    I always prefer reading editorials to news. At least they are honestly bias. And if I read both sides I may get somewhere near the truth.

  • http://mikeerich.blogspot.com Mike Erich The Mad Theologian

    I always prefer reading editorials to news. At least they are honestly bias. And if I read both sides I may get somewhere near the truth.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think the main flaw with this analysis is its utter lack of nuance, its attempt to force everything into an either-or, yes-no dichotomy.

    That is to say, according to the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect (MGMAE), if I detect some amount of flawed facts or reasoning in a newspaper article, I am to conclude that the whole of the newspaper, for all time, is flawed. Or so it would seem. Sort of a one-strike-you’re-banned-from-the-game-for-life analysis. Nuanced it’s not.

    The thing is, no one would possibly accept this analysis in the converse. That is, if the newspaper gets one fact that I know correct, it must be correct in all of them. So why would it hold that if I can tell they got one fact wrong, then the other facts must also be wrong?

    After all, for many people of reasonable informed-ness, surely the newspaper is full of quite a number of correct facts (and reasonable arguments), and, I would argue, a significantly smaller number of incorrect facts (and poor arguments). The question is how to form a single, Boolean conclusion on the basis of all that data. Assuming that’s even a useful conclusion to make. It’s rarely the case, as Crichton paints it, that the newspaper is unambiguously in error on everything I can verify myself. Unless you’re reading the erstwhile News of the World, which most of us regard as “untruthful in all”.

    Perhaps more importantly, if we were to apply the apparently intended solution to the MGMAE in all areas of life, who in the world would we listen to? What source, exactly, is without error?

    And then there’s the question of the impact of whatever error you may find. Media critics (on whichever side) love to bash the media when they get something wrong, but they rarely demonstrate an understanding of the import of a given error. For instance, diehard Beatles fans could tell you the proper chronology when referring to Abbey Road and Let it Be, and spend several pages lamenting how anyone could get it wrong, but, honestly, who cares? What does it matter?

    Similarly, while a physics nerd will undoubtedly find something to sigh about when reading a story about the Large Hadron Collider, it is almost certainly true that, whatever the journalist got wrong, it is also beyond the ken of your average reader. The error is to be lamented, but it doesn’t actually affect what a normal person will take away from the article.

    What this comes down to, then, is a proper understanding of what various media are or should be. The newspaper is not a science journal. People who are science nerds read science journals. Average people who just want to know a little bit of what’s going on in the science world read newspapers (if that).

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think the main flaw with this analysis is its utter lack of nuance, its attempt to force everything into an either-or, yes-no dichotomy.

    That is to say, according to the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect (MGMAE), if I detect some amount of flawed facts or reasoning in a newspaper article, I am to conclude that the whole of the newspaper, for all time, is flawed. Or so it would seem. Sort of a one-strike-you’re-banned-from-the-game-for-life analysis. Nuanced it’s not.

    The thing is, no one would possibly accept this analysis in the converse. That is, if the newspaper gets one fact that I know correct, it must be correct in all of them. So why would it hold that if I can tell they got one fact wrong, then the other facts must also be wrong?

    After all, for many people of reasonable informed-ness, surely the newspaper is full of quite a number of correct facts (and reasonable arguments), and, I would argue, a significantly smaller number of incorrect facts (and poor arguments). The question is how to form a single, Boolean conclusion on the basis of all that data. Assuming that’s even a useful conclusion to make. It’s rarely the case, as Crichton paints it, that the newspaper is unambiguously in error on everything I can verify myself. Unless you’re reading the erstwhile News of the World, which most of us regard as “untruthful in all”.

    Perhaps more importantly, if we were to apply the apparently intended solution to the MGMAE in all areas of life, who in the world would we listen to? What source, exactly, is without error?

    And then there’s the question of the impact of whatever error you may find. Media critics (on whichever side) love to bash the media when they get something wrong, but they rarely demonstrate an understanding of the import of a given error. For instance, diehard Beatles fans could tell you the proper chronology when referring to Abbey Road and Let it Be, and spend several pages lamenting how anyone could get it wrong, but, honestly, who cares? What does it matter?

    Similarly, while a physics nerd will undoubtedly find something to sigh about when reading a story about the Large Hadron Collider, it is almost certainly true that, whatever the journalist got wrong, it is also beyond the ken of your average reader. The error is to be lamented, but it doesn’t actually affect what a normal person will take away from the article.

    What this comes down to, then, is a proper understanding of what various media are or should be. The newspaper is not a science journal. People who are science nerds read science journals. Average people who just want to know a little bit of what’s going on in the science world read newspapers (if that).

  • Bruce Gee

    The blog GET RELIGION is a good place to turn if you want to see journalists evaluating journalism. One must keep in mind it is by and large a conservative blog, but you can get a reasonably fast primer on how to read the news by checking it out for a week.

  • Bruce Gee

    The blog GET RELIGION is a good place to turn if you want to see journalists evaluating journalism. One must keep in mind it is by and large a conservative blog, but you can get a reasonably fast primer on how to read the news by checking it out for a week.

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