The late writer Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame) gave a speech in 2002, excerpted here:
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 refer to 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.
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.
Brands All The Way Down
We use the concept of a brand to defend against the Gell-Mann Amnesia trap. Our relationship to a brand like “The Atlantic” is built over many years of reading articles. Sometimes those articles may even be in our field – and we get a chance to test our trust. On social media, our “friends” and acquaintances also develop brands, whether they mean to or not. As we each share, like, and comment, we send signals to our followers that they will then use. Finally, we also consider the medium as a brand of trust. A software engineering article chosen for me by Facebook gets much less of my attention than one selected by a group of programming experts.
I use my own ability to judge the quality of an article in a topic I know. With that, I will come to a conclusion about not only the source, but also the curation. For example, the community of https://lobste.rs is very good a selecting high quality articles related to software development. It’s not definitive, but it is high-quality. As I widen my scope to topics that are outside my area of expertise, I need to rely on brand signals to avoid Gell-Mann amnesia.
From the article author, to the publishers, to the sharer and liker of the article, and down to the app platform, a single idea passes through a lot of hands before vying for our attention. For example, here is a somewhat random article pulled from my Flipboard “For You” feed: It comes from “Curbed” magazine, a somewhat familiar brand to me, and is written by “Carla St. Louis” (never heard of her, so no points there). It was shared by “sami” – a friend who I trust on travel issues on Flipboard, a curation platform I generally like. All of those “brands” influence my decision to read the article.
My guess is there’s only a small amount of space in our brains for “brand-quality” associations, and that these associations probably need to be reinforced to stick. So which brand signals should we rely on for areas outside our expertise?
The answer is I don’t know, but I suspect a few solid democratized curation platforms will rise to the occasion, combining both the wisdom of the crowd and work of experts. None of the general platforms (Reddit, Twitter, Facebook) seem satisfying to me, and are too easily gamed.
Something like The Conversation comes close. They describe themselves working this way:
The Conversation’s editorial process is deliberate and collaborative. Editors pay close attention to the news environment to identify the issues citizens are concerned about. They reach out to leading scholars across academia and work with them to unlock their knowledge for the broad public.
In other words experts work with editors / curators. A slightly more democratized version of The Conversation, with an algorithmic recommendation engine would be a very interesting project.
Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. Gell-Mann was a polarizing figure. He is rumored to have said “If I have seen further than others, it is because I am surrounded by dwarfs.”