Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

Just this morning I ran across a link to this lecture given by the late Michael Crichton about ten years ago, on a peculiar effect of our modern news media. I have recently had a work-related occurence which unfortunately I cannot blog about, that has convinced me of its essential truth. After you read this, I would imagine some of you will feel the same way.

To quote 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."


Anonymous said...

Yes, with us old timers, this effect is from newspapers. Remember the old sarcastic comment that used to be common when someone was parroting some obviously inaccurate/false/biased piece of propaganda?--"Oh, well, that MUST be true because you read it in a NEWSPAPER"--with scathing sarcasm focused on that last word "NEWSPAPER". Well kids, I hate to disillusion you, but the same applies to these here modern contraptions known as COMPUTERS! "It MUST be true because, well, I found it on the internet!". Reminds me of a favorite quote from one of the Farley Mowat books, "The Siberians" about his trip through the former USSR. Farley asked one of his driver/guides what he thought of all the ridiculous PROPAGANDA all over Russia, and the guide quipped(paraphrased here)-- "The difference between propaganda in Russia, and propaganda in America, is, YOU BELIEVE YOURS!"....L.B.

Heather Houlahan said...

I have an opposite phenomenon, which may be thought of as the "History" Channel Credibility Sink.

I'll be watching some program on an allegedly educational cable channel, and be thinking "Awesome, I did not know that! See, television is NOT a vast wasteland, I'm learning something here."

Very next program, or sometimes the next segment of the same program, will cover some topic about which I DO have some expertise, and it will be a great steaming pile of confabulated crap. My mood shifts to "Sonafa ... now I can't believe ANYTHING I thought I learned here."

Related, I think, is the inexorable creep of purpose of any network that is initially presented as educational or for a specific purpose. Science fiction channel airs a cold-reading "psychic" swindler; History channel takes a break from its all-Hitler, all-the-time lineup for some aliens-visited-Egypt programming; BBC America airs any crappy recent movie that featured even one British actor; Animal Planet (don't even get me started ...) chases Sasquatch.

Which is why most of my minimal television viewing these days consists of Comedy Central, Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network, and Turner Classic Movies.

Reid Farmer said...

some aliens-visited-Egypt programming

You mean to tell me they didn't???

Anonymous said...

Yeah, when watching/reading anything anymore, I'll think, "my, that's interesting; I wonder if it's true?", prompting me to check up on said subjects from other, various sources. And whatever it is tends to be exagerrated or not exactly relating the whole story, or based on flimsy evidence. There tends to be an almost religious acceptance of things as reported by "scientists" and their results from impressive sounding laboratory experiments--but scientists are humans, too, with the same foibles, egos, and tendency to LIE to get ahead--like the recent fiasco shown on "60 Minutes" regarding the breakthrough research in cancer treatment--all bogus, alas. So I tend to have a "wait-and-see" attitude to about everything anymore!!!....L.B.

Anonymous said...

....and Reid, in the spirit of this subject, let me clarify some FACTS(ahem) for you--yes, the Egyptians most certainly DID have contact with the aliens, at least for awhile. Then, because for some silly humane reasons, the Egyptians stopped sacrificing animals and people to them, the Aliens leveled sanctions on the Egyptians, and then finally severed their ties with them completely for noncompliance. The confusion arises therefore as to WHEN exactly a study is focusing on Alien contacts. As we all know, the Mayans and Aztecs continued their association and compliance with Alien dictates until those dang Conquistadores disrupted things. Hope this clarifies stuff for you.....L.B.