Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect: We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears

Over at PJMedia, two to three years before Donald Trump announced his candidacy, Ed Driscoll uncovered a gem on the subject of fake news, 13 to 14 years before Trump popularized the term:
[In 2002, the] late Michael Crichton coined a phrase he called "the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect," named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.) 
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.
In his speech on the prevalence of speculation in media — an idea defined by Thomas L. McDonald as "I believe everything the media tells me except for anything for which I have direct personal knowledge, which they always get wrong" — Michael Crichton goes on to say that
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.

So one problem with speculation is that it piggybacks on the Gell-Mann effect of unwarranted credibility, making the speculation look more useful than it is.

Another issue concerns the sheer volume of speculation. Sheer volume comes to imply a value which is specious. I call this the There-Must-Be-A-Pony effect, from the old joke in which a kid comes down Christmas morning, finds the room filled with horseshit, and claps his hands with delight. His astonished parents ask: why are you so happy? He says, with this much horseshit, there must be a pony.

Because we are confronted by speculation at every turn, in print, on video, on the net, in conversation, we may eventually conclude that it must have value. But it doesn't. Because no matter how many people are speculating, no matter how familiar their faces, how good their makeup and how well they are lit, no matter how many weeks they appear before us in person or in columns, it remains true that none of them knows what the future holds.

Some people secretly believe that the future can be known. They imagine two groups of people that can know the future, and therefore should be listened to. The first is pundits. Since they expound on the future all the time, they must know what they are talking about. Do they? “Brill's Content” used to track the pundit's guesses, and while one or another had an occasional winning streak, over the long haul they did no better than chance. This is what you would expect. Because nobody knows the future.

 …  Futurists don't know any more about the future than you or I. Read their magazines from a couple of years ago and you'll see an endless parade of error.

Expertise is no shield against failure to see ahead. That's why it was Thomas Watson, head of IBM, who predicted the world only needed 4 or 5 computers. That is about as wrong a prediction as it is possible to make, by a man who had every reason to be informed about what he was talking about. Not only did he fail to anticipate a trend, or a technology, he failed to understand the myriad uses to which a general purpose machine might be put.

Similarly, Paul Erlich, a brilliant academic who has devoted his entire life to ecological issues, has been wrong in nearly all his major predictions. He was wrong about diminishing resources, he was wrong about the population explosion, and he was wrong that we would lose 50% of all species by the year 2000. He devoted his life to intensely felt issues, yet he has been spectacularly wrong.


Now, this is not new information. It was Mark Twain who said,
'I've seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass."
And much of what politicians say is not so much a prediction as an attempt to make it come true. It's argument disguised as analysis. But it doesn't really persuade anybody. Because most people can see through it.

If speculation is worthless, why is there so much of it? Is it because people want it? I don't think so. I myself speculate that media has turned to speculation for media's own reasons. So now let's consider the advantages of speculation from a media standpoint.

1. It's incredibly cheap. Talk is cheap. And speculation shows are the cheapest thing you can put on television, They’re almost as cheap as running a test pattern. Speculation requires no research, no big staff. Minimal set. Just get the talking host, book the talking guests—of which there is no shortage—and you're done! Instant show. No reporters in different cities around the world, no film crews on location. No deadlines, no footage to edit, no editors...nothing! Just talk. Cheap.

2. You can't lose. Even though the speculation is correct only by chance, which means you are wrong at least 50% of the time, nobody remembers and therefore nobody cares. You are never accountable. The audience does not remember yesterday, let alone last week, or last month. Media exists in the eternal now, this minute, this crisis, this talking head, this column, this speculation.

 … And since [people] don't remember, as a speculator on media, you can't lose. Let me expand on this idea that you can't lose. It's not confined to the media. Most areas of intellectual life have discovered the virtues of speculation, and have embraced them wildly. In academia, speculation is usually dignified as theory. It's fascinating that even though the intellectual stance of the pomo deconstructionist era is against theory, particularly overarching theory, in reality what every academic wants to express is theory.

 …  In short, the understanding that so long as you speculate, you can't lose is widespread. And it is perfect for the information age, which promises a cornucopia of knowledge, but delivers a cornucopia of snake oil.

Now, nowhere is it written that the media need be accurate, or useful. They haven't been for most or recorded history. So, now they're what? What is wrong with it?

 1. Tendency to excess. The fact that it's only talk makes drama and spectacle unlikely—unless the talk becomes heated and excessive. So it becomes excessive. Not every show features the Crossfire-style food fight, but it is a tendency on all shows.

2. “Crisisization” of everything possible. Most speculation is not compelling because most events are not compelling—Gosh, I wonder what will happen to the German mark? Are they going to get their labor problems under control? This promotes the well-known media need for a crisis. Crisis in the German mark! Uh-oh! Look out! Crises unite the country, draw viewers in large numbers, and give something to speculate about. Without a crisis, the talk soon degenerates into debate about whether the refs should have used instant replay on that last football game. So there is a tendency to hype urgency and importance and be-there-now when such reactions are really not appropriate. …

3. Superficiality as a norm. Gotta go fast. Hit the high points. Speculation adds to the superficiality. That’s it, don’t you think?

4. Endless presentation of uncertainty and conflict may interfere with resolution of issues. There is some evidence that the television food fights not only don’t represent the views of most people—who are not so polarized—but they may tend to make resolution of actual disputes more difficult in the real world. At the very least, these food fights obscure the recognition that disputes are resolved every day. Compromise is much easier from relatively central positions than it is from extreme and hostile, conflicting positions: Greenpeace Spikers vs the Logging Industry.

5. The interminable chains of speculation paves the way to litigation about breast implants, hysteria over Y2K and global warming, articles in the New Yorker about currents of death, and a variety of other results that are not, by any thoughtful view, good things to happen. … The assumption that nothing can be known with certainty does have terrible consequences. As GK Chesterton said (in a somewhat different context),
“If you believe in nothing you’ll believe in anything.” 
That’s what we see today. People believe in anything.

But just in terms of the general emotional tenor of life, I often think people are nervous, jittery in this media climate of what if, what if, maybe, perhaps, could be…when there is simply no reason to feel nervous. Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts. We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It's not sensible to listen to it.

We need to start remembering that everybody who said that Y2K wasn't a real problem was either shouted down, or kept off the air. The same thing is true now of issues like species extinction and global warming. You never hear anyone say it's not a crisis.

 … Personally, I think we need to start turning away from media, and the data shows that we are, at least from television news. I find that whenever I lack exposure to media I am much happier, and my life feels fresher.

 …  They live in the world of MSNBC and the New York Times. And they've forgotten what real, reliable information is, and the lengths you have to go to get it. It's so much harder than just speculating.

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