Wet Streets Cause Rain: Michael Crichton on the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

Wet Streets Cause Rain: Michael Crichton on the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

George W. Bush holds an issue of the Weekly World News that claims that a space alien endorses Bush for President.

Have you ever read an article about a topic you know well, and found that the writer got everything wrong? Not just little things, but basic things, like the decade that Kate Bush released her first album, or the sport that Joe Montana played professionally. And did you then turn to another section and read about something you don't know well, such as foreign policy or the economy or domestic politics, and take that story more or less at face value?

If you have, then you've experienced the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. The term was coined by Michael Crighton in his 2005 essay "Why Speculate?" From the essay:

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 behavior is amnesia.

Why does this happen? For some possible insight, see this quote from George Orwell's article, "Confessions of a Book Reviewer":

Three of these books deal with subjects of which [the book reviewer] is so ignorant that he will have to read at least fifty pages if he is to avoid making some howler which will betray him not merely to the author (who of course knows all about the habits of book reviewers), but even to the general reader...Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases — ‘a book that no one should miss’, ‘something memorable on every page’, ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc. etc.’ — will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go.

There's more on this subject, but it's hard to collate; "Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect" isn't exactly a household term. If you know of any related quotes, stories or experiences from your own life, leave them in the comments below. Here are some tangentially-related cases that I remember:

  • Adam Carolla ranting about some news story which said that Marc Maron's podcast was older than his, when ninety seconds of research (i.e. going to iTunes and looking at each podcast's oldest reviews) would have shown that to be incorrect. Marc Maron wasn't present for this podcast. I've looked for this clip on youtube but I can't find it again.
  • "A Rape on Campus," one of the more embarrassing cases of bad journalism from the last few years.

On a related note, are there any drinking games associated with "howlers" in the news? I have a feeling that anyone playing along would get alcohol poisoning pretty quickly though.

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