The Gell-Mann Effect

Murray Gell-Mann

I miss Michael Crichton. It’s not just that he was a marvelous storyteller who could spot a trend ten years away and turn it into a ripping good yarn, but that he had a clarity and honesty in his writings and speeches about science and society that is sorely needed today. His skeptical approach to global “warming” was refreshing (links to pdf), and his critiques of the media were spot on.

In a speech called “Why Speculate?” (2002, pdf) he formulated what he called The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, which is something all media consumers need to keep at the backs of their minds every time they read.

It’s a more detailed version of a basic idea: I believe everything the media tells me except for anything for which I have direct personal knowledge, which they always get wrong.

Take it away, Dr. 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 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.

I’ve been asked why I only commented on the historical part of the Cosmos documentary by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I confined my comments to church history because I know church history, and my comments on the rest of the show would have been the assessment of a novice: perhaps interesting to some, but hardly useful as a content critique.

My assumption would normally be that because Tyson is a scientist, the science content will be strong. He’s not a journalist, so it’s more likely the Gell-Mann Effect doesn’t hold in this case. He only gets into trouble when he tackles a subject on which is wholly ignorant (history).

But why would I assume that he’s a skilled scientist? I don’t know Tyson from Adam. Wikipedia tells me he’s an astrophysicist, and he may be a good one.

Or maybe he’s not. I don’t even have the critical mechanism to make that assessment, since I wouldn’t know a good astrophysicist from a bad one from a pomegranate. Maybe he’s just good at boiling complicated issues down to a 13-year-old reading level. We only accept his bona fides on the basis of the authority of others.

“Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a great astrophysicist,” we are told by people who should know. His list of achievements is impressive, and that’s the end of it. It’s reasonable to assume, in this case, that the science content of Cosmos is generally solid, even if the one element of the show about which I have direct knowledge is completely misleading.

This doesn’t apply to the mainstream media, however. There is a genre of science writing that can be quite accomplished, but it’s rather rarefied and hardly the norm. Most mainstream science writing is rewriting of press releases about studies from people who need coverage about those studies to keep grant money coming.

If a story is of the “a new study shows” variety, it’s almost always entirely worthless. New studies may indeed show somethingorother, and they may even be correct, but the signal-to-noise ratio in mainstream coverage of studies skews far enough to “noise” that you’re better off just ignoring the whole lot.

This is a basic truth, but it also creates a serious problem. We swing from one extreme to the other. We go from believing everything is true to believing nothing is true. Humanity has trouble with nuance.

So much material–and so much of it worthless–gets shoved like pork bits into the meat grinder of the mainstream media that it ultimately creates confusion. There is a breakdown in trust, not in the media (which we keep blindly looking to for accurate information, even while asserting that we don’t trust it!) but in the perception that truth is knowable. The data overload dulls our critical sense. Our bullshit filters are broken.

One after another people march through my comboxes asserting as ironclad truth things I know from primary evidence to be untrue. They are certain, and nothing will shake them from that certainty.

This terrible certainty is selective, and based almost wholly on a half-remembered account from an unremembered source. When it reinforces biases, a “truth” is accepted. When it challenges biases, it is resisted. It takes long study and careful cultivation of a healthy and engaged critical skepticism to sort lies from truth, and none of us can do it for everything. All of us will, eventually, make an appeal to authority, and that’s okay.

We just need to choose the right authority, or choose many authorities and weigh the evidence ourselves, rather than trying to take a shortcut to the truth by trusting a mainstream media that is clearly incapable of explaining most things accurately.

I’m going to let Crichton have the last word here, but do read his whole essay, and any others you can find.

Let me point to a demonstrable bad effect of the assumption that nothing is really knowable. Whole word reading was introduced by the education schools of the country without, to my knowledge, any testing of the efficacy of the new method. It was simply put in place. Generations of teachers were indoctrinated in its methods. As a result, the US has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the industrialized world. The assumption that nothing can be known with certainty does have terrible consequences.

As GK Chesterton said (in a somewhat different context), “If you believe in nothing you’ll believe in anything.” That’s what we see today. People believe in anything.

But just in terms of the general emotional tenor of life, I often think people are nervous, jittery in this media climate of what if, what if, maybe, perhaps, could be—when there is simply no reason to feel nervous. Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts. We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It’s not sensible to listen to it.

Personally, I think we need to start turning away from media, and the data shows that we are, at least from television news. I find that whenever I lack exposure to media I am much happier, and my life feels fresher.

In closing, I’d remind you that while there are some things we cannot know for sure, there are many things that can be resolved, and indeed are resolved. Not by speculation, however. By careful investigation, by rigorous statistical analysis. Since we’re awash in this contemporary ocean of speculation, we forget that things can be known with certainty, and that we need not live in a fearful world of interminable unsupported opinion. But the gulf that separates hard fact from speculation is by now so unfamiliar that most people can’t comprehend it.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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