What is the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect?

NewspapersI think that we have all experienced that sense of disbelief when watching or reading main stream media. You know what I’m talking about, when you read about something that you know about and realise that they have it all completely wrong!

The thing is, if the main stream media get it wrong when reporting on something you know about, why would it be any different when they report about something you don’t know about?

The late writer Michael Crichton coined a phrase for this dichotomy that we hold in our mind called “The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect”. He defines it as such:

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 behaviour is amnesia.

photo by Jon S

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