Get New Ideas by Email. Join 3k+ Readers.

Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect: Why You Shouldn’t Trust the Media

In 1903, The New York Times made a bold prediction. “Flying machines” would take at least a million years of research and development to become a reality. Nine weeks later, the Wright Brothers made their first flight. Fast forward another 120 years and trust in the media is at an all-time low. In the United States, the share of people with “a great deal/fair amount” of trust in the media plummeted from 76% in 1976 to 34% in 2022. Regardless of whether you’re now wondering why the number is still so high or if any of the above is even true, you’ll be thrilled to learn about the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. This phenomenon is fueled by both the inherent flaws of media reporting and our misguided trust in its accuracy.

What Is the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect?

The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect describes our tendency to trust news articles on topics we’re not knowledgeable about; even though we recognise inaccuracies in other news reports on issues we know well. Novelist Michael Crichton coined the phenomenon in his 2002 talk Why Speculate? about the prevalence of speculation in the news.

Purportedly, the idea for the effect had emerged from a conversation with Crichton’s friend, the physicist Murray Gell-Mann. By the writer’s self-ironic account, he named it after the professor in the hopes that “by dropping a famous name” the effect (and Crichton himself) would appear more important. Here’s the concept in his own words:

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

Crichton concluded that the “media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved”. News organisations in particular often reported based on inaccurate assumptions while we kept reading and listening even though we should know better. As we’ve established, not even, and especially, the paper of record is immune to inaccurate reporting and misguided speculation. What’s more, there’s a subtle self-irony to Crichton’s observations that has to do with authority and how we perceive it.

Gell-Mann Amnesia and Authority Bias

A driving force of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is the unique credibility and authority news organisations enjoy. As Crichton says, the effect was exclusive to the media landscape:

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.

Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton, inventor of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect
Michael Crichton

Shrouded in authoritative-sounding yet obfuscating language, media speculation was wrongly perceived as valuable, the novelist thought. Will the next election lead to the destruction of democracy? Nobody knows. Still, somebody can and will publish a lengthy article in a lacklustre attempt to predict the unpredictable with utmost certainty.

Meanwhile, the reader falls victim to authority bias, the tendency to unquestioningly accept the opinions of those in power. Even though that same authority got so much verifiably wrong a few pages ago. According to the late novelist, it’s our forgetfulness that enables the media to engage in speculation without repercussions such as loss of credibility.

Crichton was probably aware that the concept is based on mere observations by two friends having a chat. Ironically, the effect falls in the realm of speculation itself. Yet, it’s undeniably relatable. Whatever your specialty, I’m sure you’ve come across the occasional news article that leaves you scratching your head. And it’s not even limited to expertise either.

Knoll’s Law of Media Accuracy

Suffice it to say that Michael Crichton wasn’t the first one to notice this media phenomenon. While the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect invokes your expertise, Knoll’s Law of Media Accuracy demasks the media’s lack of accuracy based on firsthand knowledge. Named after American journalist Erwin Knoll, this eponymous law goes as follows:

Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge.

Erwin Knoll, as quoted in…The New York Times

Imagine you’re sitting in your favourite cafe, sipping your espresso as you witness a car accident across the road, right in front of your eyes. A day later, you read about it in the paper: Car Crashes Into Bakery, Panic Erupts. That is you read an approximation of what the reporter thought happened after he pieced it together in an hour.

The paper gets the gist right. But not the nuances and details. The car didn’t crash into a “bakery”. It crashed into The Bakery, a former pastry shop that got turned into a nightclub. A panic didn’t erupt. Except for the little boy next to you in the cafe who got upset because he dropped his ice cream when he heard a loud bang.

Fair enough. Journalists and editors are prone to errors in perception and cognitive biases just like anyone else. The question is: Does that experience make you mistrust the truthfulness of the other events reported in the paper? The ones you didn’t happen to witness firsthand? Let’s look into ways to make that less likely.

Curing Gell-Mann Amnesia

We should begin by acknowledging how we’re all prone to influence by mass media. Consider the Third-Person Effect, a hypothesis that suggests we overestimate the effect mass media has on others. At the same time, we think we’re not so easily influenced by media content ourselves. Whether it’s manipulation tactics, propaganda techniques or everyday power games, the stronger our sense of immunity, the more we should pay attention to our media consumption and the conclusions we draw from it.

While we can’t cure amnesia with a blog post we can at least get our hands on some cognitive tools to remind us how to be sceptical of any source of information. We’ve touched on authority bias above. The other side of that coin is the Argument from Authority, the justification of a claim with the opinion of an influential source. It’s one of the many useful tools in Carl Sagan’s famous Baloney Detection Kit. What better way to sharpen your mind than to try those tools out while reading the next news article on how wet streets caused yet another downpour?

A more publication-specific approach is the conscious attempt to calibrate your level of trust in a media source. I like to call it the Lonely Planet Test; named after the popular travel guide people used to solely rely on to explore new countries. Browse the issue of your home country or hometown. What sights do they recommend? What restaurants are supposedly “popular with the locals”? How do they portray the local culture? With that credibility test in mind, go buy and read the Lonely Planet for your next destination.

It can be a sobering experience and works with any media. The goal, however, is careful extrapolation and fine-tuning, not overgeneralisation and overcorrection. Finding that one (in)accurate story in a newspaper doesn’t mean the others are also (in)accurate. Think about it as collecting data points that give you an indication of the publication’s and the author’s reliability. It’s not perfect, but a start in making a more conscious decision about whether a publication is worth your time.

Closing Thoughts

Truth be told, the story about the inaccurate Wright Brothers prediction is accurate. The paper of record got it spectacularly wrong. At least to the degree that this media outlet reports on it. While we rely on the media because it’s impossible to become experts on every subject, blind trust in them is certainly unwarranted.

Besides, I don’t think Crichton’s point was to doubt the media completely. It was to establish a healthy level of distrust based on track record. Ultimately, the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect serves as a great reminder of how, in the endless cycle of baloney production and detection, both writers and their readers are fallible.