• Justin McBrayer

How Quickly We Forget

Everyone knows that much of the news is fake. And the main problem isn't disinformation from abroad. Instead, the main problem is misleading information and misinformation produced here at home (for more on these distinctions on types of news, see here).


So, if we know that much of the reporting on TV, social media, and websites is misinformed, why do we fall for it so often? Part of the answer is that we quickly forget how much reporters don't know. And I'm not just talking about paid journalists--I mean your neighbor posting on social media, bloggers like me, etc. To put it less kindly, we forget just how ignorant most of us are about the vast majority of topics in the world.


This tendency to forget has a name: the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. Widely thought to have been coined by Michael Crichton (of Jurrasic Park fame), the effect itself is named after Crichton's friend, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who first noticed the effect when he was reading the paper. Here's a brief description of the effect in Crichton's 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.


Let me recap this. Most of us are experts in something or other. And when we read news stories, listen to podcasts, or watch TV stories that are in our areas of expertise, we're likely to notice plenty of mistakes. The world is complicated, and yet the news anchor will flatten, simplify, and outright get things wrong time and again.


As an expert in philosophy, I see this every day I read the news. Almost anytime a journalist is addressing an ethically or philosophically complex issue, I notice immediately how much she gets wrong. She'll provide a strong version of one side of the story and a straw-man version of the other. She'll ignore obvious objections, misuse terminology, and otherwise botch it.


And then I'll turn the page and assume everything the reporter is saying about EU trade negotiations or coronavirus vaccines is spot-on. That's the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.


If this makes it sound like I'm placing the blame for fake news at the feet of journalists, hold on a minute. My point is that most of us are ignorant, most of the time, about most of the topics out there. Journalists are no different in that respect. The difference is that journalists are in the uneviable position of having to report on subject matter they know little about. This expertise gap has only widened as newspapers close across the country and reporters are stretched further and further on less money. We can't overwork and underpay journalists while expecting 100% accuracy, 100% of the time.


Instead, the blame lies partially with us. We know that journalists can't master all of the stories they must cover. This is obvious to us anytime we read something in our field of expertise. But we forget this when we read stories outside of our domain, taking what we read, see, or hear as gospel. In a word, we're gullible.


This gullibility didn't have damning consequences when sharing stories required cutting newspaper stories out of the morning paper and snail-mailing it to a friend across the country. But nowadays, we can share stories at no cost, at lightning speed with vast audiences that are equally as gullible. That's how the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect foments a kind of misinformational cascade. If you want to understand the fake news crisis that's rocked democracies around the globe, you'll find that our forgetfulness plays a starring role.

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