The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect August 23, 2011

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?


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