“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.”

Source: Quote by Michael Crichton: “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is…”

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6 Responses to The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

  1. I didn’t follow the link, so I’m just going off the part that’s quoted here. But in my opinion, Crichton is wrong to analogize (or rather, disanalogize) the phenomenon to “lying.” It’s not necessarily that the news media is trying to deceive, although perhaps some members of some media are trying to deceive.

    What I think is really going on is that even the best, most conscientious journalism will get it wrong. It’s reporting, and in order to report the journalist has to distill things for presentation and has to rely on faulty sources. If we know more about the subject–or if we were actual witnesses to the event the journalist is describing–we’ll see all the holes and inaccuracies and misrepresentations. But while the goal should be accuracy, it will never be wholly accurate. It’s not just about wrong facts vs. right facts. Even with all the facts trebly verified, the representation will have all the weaknesses of a representation and not be the thing it’s representing.

    Similar thing with history. It’s the historian’s job to verify his/her facts and cite sources (and ideally, explain how he/she derived his/her claims from those sources….something many historians seem not to want to do). The monograph or article or argument they present will still get it wrong, though, even if we’re talking about the most conscientious historian.

  2. RTod says:

    There needs to be some corollary law, that describes reading an article in the paper about a topic you don’t really know that much about, disagree with the reporting for reasons that are more culturally or politically driven, deduce because you don’t like it that it therefore must by wrong, and walk away feeling that because you were able to deduce this that it therefore follows that you know a lot more than most people about that subject that you don’t really know that much about.

    • Burt Likko says:

      This is called “compound confirmation bias.” In related news, I just learned today that there are websites claiming that Donald Trump won the popular vote and all you have to do is add up the state by state totals and he has about 300,000 more votes than Clinton. Clearly, you don’t know what you’re talking about there Mr. Wikipedia.

  3. Kazzy says:

    Doesn’t this assume that every article is written by the same person?

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