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Gell-Mann Amnesia

Entry 1985, on 2019-06-18 at 21:04:02 (Rating 3, News)

Many people laugh when Donald Trump complains about "fake news" and how he is treated by the mainstream media. To most it seems like he just doesn't like the media portraying the facts about his "occasionally inaccurate statements" and politically incorrect actions, and that is probably true in most cases, but also I think that he might be on to something when he refers to fake news.

Because it really has got to the point now where the mainstream news just cannot be trusted. If I see anything in the news today I don't take it at face value, because I know that, in almost every case, it will be either wrong, substantially inaccurate, or hopelessly biased. So when I see a news item I look for alternative sources outside the MSM. Because there's little point in just looking at other conventional sources when they often just repeat what each other are saying anyway.

I have mentioned in previous blog posts that I have often noticed inaccuracies in reporting on topics I know something about, such as computing, astronomy, technology, and to a lesser extent science in general. In fact, I never see a mainstream article on a topic I know something about which I think is completely free from inaccuracy, bias, or unfounded speculation. In other words, for any subject I know enough about, conventional news sources are a poor way to acquire good information, although using the work "fake" is probably going a bit too far.

Also in past posts I have speculated about how that observation of poor reporting standards most likely also extends to all the subjects I am not an "expert" on, but I just don't know enough to recognise the problem in those cases.

And this is not an original idea, because the effect has a name. It is called the "Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect". This states that people notice errors in subjects they know a lot about, but when reading articles on other topics from the same source they forget these problems and assume the other material is accurate.

The name was introduced by Michael Crichton, the well known author, and he named it after physicist, Murray Gell-Mann, to give it greater credibility. And yes, Crichton was aware of the irony in doing that!

In fact, I am a fan of Crichton and have read most of his books. Many people would ask why, because they might not consider his writing to be of a high standard in the conventional sense. But I don't usually read books because of the character development, or clever use of allusion, or any of those other aspects which many elitist book reviewers seem to value, although I do recognise some value in those attributes. My reason for reading Crichton's work is because of his intelligent treatment of ideas, and I think exploring interesting ideas is of far greater value that many of those more conventional criteria.

Crichton described the effect it like this: "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."

It would be like me reading in the local paper that the latest Apple product has a major defect and Apple as a company are in danger of failing, and laughing at the naivety of such a stupid statement, but then getting upset when I read about how poorly the Israeli military are treating the Palestinians! It is obvious to me that the reporter got it wrong about the Apple news, although there might be some real core event the item was based on, so why would I assume they are any better regarding global politics?

To support this idea, I often hear from people with expertise in different areas to mine that they feel the same about news in their area of expertise. For example, I recently listened to a podcast featuring an ex-Navy SEAL who finds all news and other material about the military incredibly frustrating. For example, he cannot watch any military movie, especially if it is "based on real events".

I should emphasise that I'm not saying that everything in the MSM is wrong, or deliberately misleading, and it's not the result of deliberate malfeasance that this effect occurs. Because there is another effect, called "Hanlon's Razor", which states that you should never attribute to malice what can be easily explained by incompetence. But it also goes a bit beyond that, because the media are also obviously politically biased, mostly towards the left, although there are some equally right-biased sources, such as Fox News.

I should also say that most news is not completely fake, because it is more subtle than that, and therefore more dangerous. Most "fake news" isn't actually fake, it's just (sometimes subtly) biased, superficial, or specifically aimed at commercial success rather than pure accuracy.

So where does better quality information come from? In my previous blog post I described how podcasts are a good source of more nuanced news, less superficial treatment of subjects, and of opinions from experts whose ideas might normally be repressed. Some blogs are also in this category of useful sources, although I prefer podcasts for reasons I explained in that discussion.

Of course, I am very aware that many, and maybe the majority of, podcasts and blogs are as bad, or maybe even worse, than conventional news, so caution does need to be exercised there as well. But at least those sources tend to be specialised enough that you really are getting an expert view. And they tend to be relatively unaffected by commercial pressures, because they have low overheads and are generally not influenced by the demands of large corporations. And they are usually run by experts in the areas covered rather than specialist journalists who are almost guaranteed to be fairly ignorant of the areas they are covering.

So as conventional journalism slowly dies and is replaced by these alternatives we might, contrary to many people's expectations, get better coverage of real events. Of course, there is a significant risk that it could get worse too, because I admit that the worst blogs and podcasts are much worse than the worst conventional sources. But that's the way it's going, so we might as well get used to it. The MSM had its chance and it blew it. When conventional journalism becomes completely irrelevant, it will be no great loss.


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