Term for cognitive dissonance in media, sort of
January 9, 2020 8:33 AM   Subscribe

What's the term (named after a physicist, I think) for the phenomenon of reading an article in the newspaper about which you're a subject matter expert, realising it's all wrong, then blithely flicking the page to read about politics or foreign affairs, confident in the abilities of those other journalists who write about the stuff you're less familiar with?

This exact experience happened to me as an undergraduate (it's why I gradually stopped reading the BBC news website) and years later it was electrifying to come across the term and its explanation. Naturally, i forgot to bookmark it.

By years later, I mean: in the last month or so, either here or on twitter.
posted by chappell, ambrose to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
As far as I know it was coined by 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.”
posted by Lorc at 8:38 AM on January 9, 2020 [22 favorites]

Gell-Mann amnesia effect?
posted by zamboni at 8:41 AM on January 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

That's it!! Thank you both. I'd somehow forgotten the detail about it being invented by Michael Crichton.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:16 AM on January 9, 2020

Maybe you forgot you read the name, here on the green, yesterday :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:19 AM on January 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Maybe you forgot you read the name, here on the green, yesterday :)

Hahaha, I hadn't seen that! But I did see it recently, very probably on the Blue, and it's such a nice concept that I suspect mine isn't the only head it's now lodged in.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:24 AM on January 9, 2020

One should be a little careful throwing that around, as an additional quote for context from the full Crichton piece:
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. …
To me, the whole piece and message is that we shouldn't trust experts, but we should trust the show business guy. This piece would've come out about the same time as Crichton's execrable denialist novel, State of Fear.
posted by scruss at 9:38 AM on January 9, 2020 [8 favorites]

This seems at least adjacent to domain-dependent thinking, in that it's a failure to transfer what you've learned (journalists simplify and get things wrong) from one domain (the one you're specialized in) to another, even though the knowledge is entirely general and can be applied in both.

E.g. I, a chemical engineer who has designed distillation columns to separate ethanol and water, know exactly how much boiling is needed to remove the majority of ethanol from a given mixture. Yet I was still amazed when I first realized that the alcohol in e.g. a pasta sauce does not just magically "boil off" in the first minute like everybody says it does.
posted by Jobst at 9:59 AM on January 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

One should be a little careful throwing that around, as an additional quote for context from the full Crichton piece

Hey, if you think that’s alarming, you should read the part of his autobiography (Travels, 1988) when he talks about going on a Thai brothel crawl. He and his companions end up in a child brothel. He claims not to partake:

Content warning for what’s below the fold
“I don’t know what this guy is thinking of,” Ed says. “The last time I was here, it was with”—he names a distinguished person—“and they had seven- and eight-year-olds here. Really. Extraordinary.”
“Ah, here’s the room,” Ed says.
The door opens. We see a handful of prepubescent girls. They look ten or eleven. Their eyes are dark and smudged. Their postures are coy; they strut and throw glances over their shoulders. One girl walks unsteadily in high heels too big for her.
“What do you say, guys?” Ed says. He’s grinning with excitement.
I just want to get out of there. I don’t care if they think I’m effeminate, I don’t care what they think. I just want to get away from these poor children and these reeking corridors with people pulling at me, touching me, little fingers reaching up for me. “Mister … mister …”
“I think I’ll pass,” I say. “I’m a little tired.”
Peter and I go outside and sit on the bumper of Ed’s car and smoke cigarettes and talk about what has happened in our lives in the ten years since we have last seen each other. We suddenly have this camaraderie, because it is the middle of the night and we are tired and we have both decided to pass on the child prostitutes and we want to make sure the other guy doesn’t think we’re chicken or something. We have a really nice conversation, and then Ed reappears.
“You guys. You really missed it. There was some quite extraordinary material there.”
“Yeah. Well.”
“Okay, what do you say we stop at a coffee shop? See what girls are around? Huh?”
We plead exhaustion.

posted by chappell, ambrose at 10:51 AM on January 10, 2020

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