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Murray Gell-Mann, Caltech Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics, and the man who coined the word ‘quark,’ passed away last week, four months shy of his 90th birthday.
Gell-Mann helped bring order to the field of particle physics in the 1950s and 1960s — a time when a bewildering array of new particles was being found in “atom-smashing” experiments. He devised a new method for sorting the particles into simple groups of eight, based on their electric charge, spin, and other characteristics. Gell-Mann termed his method the “eightfold way” after the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment, and for this research and related work he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
I take it for granted that pretty much anyone whose name is associated with Theoretical Physics is smarter than me and probably just about anyone I’ve ever met. I’m not particularly stupid. Neither are you. We’re just ignorant. Professor Gell-Mann was ignorant too but his ignorance differed greatly from our, my, average ignorance.
More of us should accept the fact that most of us are ignorant about most of what happens in the world and, in fact, of the world itself. Where a person like Murray Gell-Mann differs from most of us is that he was, like most good scientists I would hope, profoundly aware of the limits of his knowledge and of the need for reliable information in a democratic society.
I believe most Americans share my value in the importance of objective journalism but right now people think that trust in the media is at an all-time low. There’s a lot of blame to go around for this but part of the problem is that the media gets a lot of things wrong. Not #fakenews, just real stories reported by well-intentioned reporters but nonetheless filled with inaccurate information, sometimes due to bias but usually negligence or various forms of incompetence.
Professor Gell-Mann, a scientist that he was, observed the world around him, including the media. What he noticed was a phenomenon that most people reading this probably have as well. We all have a specialty, expertise born of practice or profession, that we know well enough to teach, and that we have seen be badly represented in the media. We’ve all read or heard a story in the news and thought “Wow, this reporter has no idea what they’re talking about. I work in this industry and they’re getting everything wrong.”
This by itself isn’t terribly insightful, again, we all know someone who can explain why this reporter got health care insurance wrong or how that anchor falsely described the differences between soldiers and marines or whatever the journalistic mistake happened to be. Murray Gell-Mann thought about this and observed related phenomena. He developed a hypothesis, lending his name to a concept coined by his friend, best-selling science-fiction author Michael Crichton:
“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.”
For some reason, we expect someone who was wrong about the thing we know well to be right about the things we don’t know well. The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect describes our repetitive acceptance of repetitive incompetence and untrustworthiness. We don’t apply the same rigorous standards of research and credulity to our news diet as we do to our professional tasks and end up deliberately believing demonstrably false things.
We expect more from our media but are much more forgiving of their errors, in fact. This may explain why a study of 3,600 newspapers across the country 10 years ago showed that only 2 percent of papers correct their flawed stories. Compounding the problem is the fact that almost exactly half of all the surveyed news stories contained more than one factual error. The media gets plenty wrong and doesn’t correct the vast majority of it.
Three years ago, a former Obama administration official explained how easy it was to mislead DC reporters around the ongoing Iran deal negotiations:
“The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
To be fair, the Obama official was talking about overseas stories, which are demonstrably more difficult to cover. But the point remains for nearly every other subject as well. The news industry is competitive, reporting is complicated, and there is a lot of pressure to be first to print. Corners are cut, standards are relaxed, and the industry is hemorrhaging staff at unprecedented levels; all of which have been contributing to a worrying decrease in the quality of and trust in journalism.
This narrative is incomplete however because something strange has happened in the last three years. After years of relatively steady decline trust in mass media has actually been rising. Gallup reports that since a historic low in 2016, trust in the mainstream media is up for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Contrary to popular belief, trust in the media is going up and has been the entire time Trump has been president, so far.
What are we to make of this? Some commentators have suggested that Donald Trump is so uniquely mendacious that a truth-hungry public is providing the media with an opportunity to restore their credibility. This ignores, however, the fact that trust in mass media for Republicans is going up as well.
This may be where the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect has some explanations for us. Most every one of us will be awful judges of veracity for reporting on subjects that we are not expressly educated or experienced in and will happily buy whatever the non-expert reporter is selling. We forget that generally unless they’re specialists in the field, journalists don’t know what they’re talking about and can really only repeat what others have told them. (The problem identified and exploited by that former Obama official and politicians throughout history — and I’m sure well into the future.)
Much like the Dunning-Kruger effect, the MGM Amnesia effect is a cognitive bias and a psychological safety mechanism. We want and need to believe that we have a trustworthy news industry; conveniently forgetting about the manifold inadequacies of that industry protects us from acknowledging that most of us really have no idea what the hell is going on. We accept the facts and go on with our lives.
So why is trust in the media going up?
Maybe because the election of 2016 and the subsequent two years of breathlessly inane and cartoonish behavior by the 45th president have shocked us so badly that we desperately yearn for objective gatekeepers of democracy and are willing to forgive past inaccuracies. This is a popular theory.
Perhaps because the election of 2016 and the years since are as noticeable as much for the egregious half-truths and blatant lies of the media as of those of President Trump. Maybe we have been so stunned by the consistently inaccurate reporting on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Jussie Smollett, Russia, and a host of other things that we’ve adopted a curious form of Stockholm Syndrome and convinced ourselves to ignore the evidence before us.
Or it’s the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect and we just forget. It’s not deliberate, just a Pavlovian response from a society that has been conditioned to suspend its incredulity and believe that Satanists are in our kindergartens. It seems as good an explanation as any other as to why we keep giving trust to a media industry which doesn’t really deserve it.