The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

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.

— Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

I think everyone can relate. The reason that drives us to distrust the media, on one hand, and to believe them when we don't know about a subject, on the other, has to do with the way they present it. Chances are you won't believe some random journalist expressing his opinions on inflation, but what if the information is coming from a so-called "expert"? Now that's more serious, an "expert" probably knows what he's talking about, right? Maybe, maybe not, that's a whole different discussion. If you ask me, and I think this is becoming more and more evident, I believe the media is generally manipulating facts on purpose, so that they can push their own narratives and shape the public opinion. But there are also cases where a journalist is simply being naïve, and, because he's not an expert, and does not know about all the inner workings of a subject, he inevitably lacks the knowledge required to be able to assess an expert's opinion, so he just takes it and presents it as a fact.

Fact checkers, trusted sources, experts say, and the like, are all synonyms for propaganda and false information, be it accidental or deliberate. USA TODAY, who themselves fact-check others, removed 23 fabricated stories from their website, and, what's interesting is that most of these 23 articles are mundane and boring. One can only imagine how much this happens when it comes to politically and economically-motivated topics.

A way to present something as a fact is to speak or write in a flat, serious tone, with no emotion. Apart from news articles, I think the greatest example of false information disguised as fact is Wikipedia. The co-founder himself has confirmed that Wikipedia is biased, but the formal tone in which articles are written, makes them look like they are true. This is a purely psychological trick, and it's so powerful that even though I know and write about it, I probably fall for it all the time.