Dec 29, 2017

Exploit Explained: Gell-Mann Amnesia

{This post is part of the Archive of Human Exploits}

In his 2005 essay, “Why Speculate?” the late, great author Michael Crichton coined a human exploit he named for the physicist Murray Gell-Mann:
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.
As a former journalist, I can sympathize with the reporters. Journalists are seldom experts, or even very knowledgable, in the topics they are asked to write about. They rely on sources and work on tight deadlines. The result is oversimplification, misconception and, yes, downright errors. But apparently it doesn’t hurt their credibility in the end because of this curious human exploit called Gell-Mann Amnesia. It's a form of proximity amnesia, and you know it to be true. I experience it all the time. I have never read a news article that got it right when covering my industry. Yet I read articles about other industries all the time and fail to question the accuracy of what I'm reading. Journalists are really good at sounding like they know what they are talking about ... to people who are on the outside of the subject matter along with them.

This effect isn't limited to journalists and newspaper readers. It can occur any time there is an illusion of authority, which roots it in Cialdini’s third principle of persuasion. A personal anecdote will serve to make my point.

On a recent trip abroad to my wife’s home country, my mother-in-law kept telling me all these fascinating "facts" about her homeland. When I would relate these "facts" back to my wife, she would always get a skeptical look on her face and express extreme doubt in the veracity of the claim. After a while, I realized this mother-in-law was the same mother-in-law who regularly forwarded us Internet conspiracies and urban legends. Because of Gell-Mann Amnesia, I had forgotten her susceptibility to spreading myths and rumors the further I moved away from my area of expertise — and facts about her country were about as far away from my area as you could get.