Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect was coined by the late Michael Crichton in a talk entitled Why Speculate, given to the International Leadership Forum, La Jolla, in 2002. Below is an excerpt from that talk:

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.

I think this has become worse in recent years. Much of the mainstream press and TV news seems to dwell in the realm of speculation, more than dry, objective reportage. The important lesson is, frankly, to doubt everything you read in the news unless you have reason to trust the source. This is exhausting, and makes the whole business of actually reading "speculative" news reporting somewhat pointless.

As Crichton said, introducing the transcript of the talk on his website:

In recent years, media has increasingly turned away from reporting what has happened to focus on speculation about what may happen in the future. Paying attention to modern media is thus a waste of time.

In recent months I have successfully weaned myself off daily news consumption. I pick up bits and pieces, here and there, but I no longer intentionally go to news sources. At the weekend, I catch up with digests from a few, trusted sources. I do not think this has significantly impaired my awareness of current affairs, while it has certainly saved me from wasting a lot of time!