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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Thursday, February 06, 2014

RETRO WATN: THE GELL-MANN AMNESIA EFFECT

This ran early in my Common Knowledge series, as prompted by commenter Lord Somber in what he called the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect, where you trust what you know you really ought not trust.
"I call this the There-Must-Be-A-Pony effect"

Truth-Lies I can't remember which comedian it is, but one of them has a great bit about how abruptly newscasters change moods, just by turning to another camera. They can be reporting on a horrible disaster in which twenty nuns were killed by colliding with a day care center over fifteen kittens, looking terribly dire and downcast. They have the expression and tone of a funeral director, how very tragic.

Then they turn slightly, face another camera and its bright and sunny! And in other news, Bob taught his dog how to surf! This is why its difficult to take news broadcasts seriously even when they aren't showing massive bias or stupidity. They mean none of it and its all staged, how much can you even trust them?

Have you ever read a news story about yourself or something you know about very closely? I have only been in the news twice: once as a little kid in a picture on some playground equipment and once for my book Snowberry's Veil. The book report had the wrong picture accompanying it.

Almost always they get something wrong. Just about everyone interviewed for a news story complains that the story leaves out important things, edits their comments, even changes the wording or swaps answers for other questions at times. They're infuriated, how badly things are messed up, sometimes deliberately. And the more closely you know a topic, the more likely you are to go "what on earth are they talking about??" when you read a news story.

But then, when you turn the page or look at another article - if you're like me - you tend to take what they say at face value. Sure, they got that story about your home town hero wrong, but they must have this story about Osama Bin Laden right, don't they?

As conservatives we have to do this constantly. We know that the writer or news broadcaster is almost certainly hostile to us politically and will use their position to damage us and help their side. This isn't some strange delusion, we see it nearly every day to one degree or another. Yet when its not a political story, or one surprisingly written with a neutral tone we tend to trust what's written.

Several times in comments on my site, the commenter Lord Somber has linked to a piece at the Seeker Blog about the "Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect." This is a concept the late Michael Crichton identified and describes in this way:
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.
Why do we do this? Well partly due to the innate tendency of humans to trust an authority. If someone is convincingly portrayed as an authority to us, we tend to believe what they say unless it directly conflicts with something we otherwise know to be true. So if a scientist says that the Marbled Bee Worm only eats decomposing flowers, we trust them because that's his job, right? But if we raise Marbled Bee Worms and know they eat raw meat, then we cry foul.

The younger we are, the more we tend to trust authority. Elsewhere in the Crichton talk he brings up this bit:
There was a well-known series of excellent studies by Stanford researchers that have shown, for example, that children take media literally. If you show them a bag of popcorn on a television set and ask them what will happen if you turn the TV upside down, the children say the popcorn will fall out of the bag.
As we grow older, we learn better how the world fits together and how things work, and become more skeptical and doubtful. Then, when we are quite old and not keeping as close a look on the trivia of our culture, we start becoming more credulous, because we don't know for sure and have to trust others. Also, the older you get, the less you trust your own judgment after decades of being humiliated and mistaken.

Another reason is that we can't know everything. As much as I'd love to exhaustively have an extensive knowledge of every single topic and concept in existence and history, I don't. I don't have time, no one has time. Everyone on earth for all of history combined haven't been able to come up with that kind of time.

I use a computer nearly every day and I don't really understand how it works, exactly. I would like to know, but not enough to take the time to study it, because I have other things I'd rather do instead. Since we cannot learn everything, we trust people who have taken the time to learn about other subjects. And most of the time, they know what they're doing - at least, enough for our purposes.

So we have to trust other people. And while we scoff at a news story we know for sure is mistaken, we tend to trust other, plausible news stories because we don't know any better. I can grit my teeth in frustration about a report on Dungeons and Dragons because the reporter is an ignorant knucklehead, but I can only hope he's getting it right in his report on prostitution in Kiev.

And finally, we have no choice because this is how we get information. - or at least it was for centuries. These days we have more opportunities, so when I see a CNN report on violence in Botswana, I can go check out blogs and tweets and actual amateur video in Botswana and get more information.

The problem is, we suffer from the same credibility issues from that blog or video. Sure, its by a local guy but is it accurate? Is it the full story? Did he just invent something? Was he pressured by the government, or censored? Remember all those different, conflicting reports out of Egypt when the Mubarak government was being deposed? Most of them came from tweets and social media. The press, lacking enough people on the ground (and it was a dangerous place to report from) reported rumors.

Of course, they've done that a long time. The first time I really saw this happen was in the first Desert Storm, where CNN ran continuous coverage, but most of it was either repetition or speculation backed by some rumor. Hurricane Katrina was so filled with erronous and outrageous rumor and lie that to this day people believe incredibly false nonsense.

So where does that leave us? We can't use Wikipedia for many topics because its so agenda-driven and edited not by the most knowledgeable, but by the most zealous. We can't trust the press because they are often ignorant, occasionally fraudulent, and usually lazy. We can't trust the internet because its full of impish pranksters, photoshop, and bias. How do we learn?

Well this isn't a new problem. People have always had to filter what they learn and read because everyone has an agenda and a bias, everyone is limited in their knowledge, and there's always been forces trying to censor or shape information to their advantage or their opponents' detriment.

The best protection we have is healthy skepticism armed with personal learning. And you have to back that up with an overarching understanding of the world which rejects the most common errors. If you honestly think people are basically decent then you're going to continuously be gulled and led astray. If you really think the world is run by a sinister cabal of secret billionaires in the Illuminati, you're going to misinterpret nearly everything you learn.

The key is discernment, shaped by a careful understanding of how the world really works. And you are best served if you find trustworthy, humble, honest, and wise sources you can rely on. No one of them will understand or know everything, but in their area of expertise, you can use them as a way to analyze information you receive. As time goes on you'll get better at recognizing junk from truth.

One of the main reasons I try to always list the name of the reporter along with their news source is that this helps me build up a database of who has been off or wierd in the past and who has been fairly reliable and accurate. If Martha Ginsberg of the Podunk Gazette keeps getting something wrong or is massively biased in her reporting, I can pretty well discard anything she writes.

Another tool is to find flags in reporting. You can usually tell if a story is going to be a bit off if you find one of these flags. For example, recently there was a rally held on the anniversary of the Roe v Wade debacle in the Supreme Court of the US. Thousands of people were there to protest the murder of children. Almost every news outlet reported hundreds and focused on the counter protest, sometimes only showing images of them. A key when you see this is how the protesters are named. If the anti-abortion rally is characterized in terms of being opposed to reproductive rights, you can expect the story to have problems.

And realize that often it doesn't really matter if the facts are somewhat off. My book is still called Snowberry's Veil, the summary of the story and the data about it was still true, even if the image was wrong. Just because the news story insists on calling Pro-Life advocates "anti-abortion-rights" advocates doesn't mean the rest of the story is completely wrong. There will still be facts you can glean.

Finally, the best way to glean these facts is to find corroboration. Look around, this is the internet, and there are billions of places you can look for information. If a news story only shows up in World Net Daily or The Nation... take it with a block of salt the size of the Washington Monument. Look for other places that tell the story, they'll usually have different information. See if you can find local news and blogs on the topic, they'll have still more information. Between all of them, chances are you'll find something closer to the truth.

Just don't read the news and expect them to be telling you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even the pictures can be made to lie.

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