Quote of the Day – The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

 

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. – Michael Crichton

The first time I encountered an example of a journalist  with absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues of something I knew well was in the early 1980s. I was working at the Navigation Console during Shuttle missions, and the Shuttle was flying its first secret military mission. (Yes, they had a few prior to 1986.)

NASA was not discussing the payload or the mission’s purpose. All of us working the mission were cautioned against talking to the press. (No problem for me.) There was wild press speculation about what was happening (some of which verged on Giant Sharks with Space Lasers territory).

The capper (for me) came after the Shuttle landed.  The Shuttle’s trajectory was nor secret. It had to be reported to the IAU, then headquartered in Paris.  The IAU had already published the orbital elements.  The Shuttle was landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In order to use excess energy post deorbit burn, the Orbiter was doing a wide loop north. It was going to passing well north of Houston – somewhere between Huntsville and Conroe, as I recall.

Some genius in  the press saw that and concluded the Orbiter had be launched in a high inclination orbit. Drawing a straight line between Huntsville and Kennedy he assumed it was overflying the Baikonur Kosmodrome during the mission. (This was the Soviet Union’s main spaceport.) That meant it had an orbital inclination of 46 degrees. Wrote it up in a front page story in The Houston Chronicle (might have been the Post) with wild speculations as to why we were  overflying the USSR’s biggest spaceport.

Except, as I stated earlier, the IAU had already published the trajectory. The mission was flown in a 28.5 degree inclination orbit. It was launched due east of KSC – the standard Shuttle inclination at that time.  When this was pointed out, this genius insisted there must have been a plane change. An 18 degree plane change would have been physically impossible for an Orbiter in any orbit. You either launch to 46 degrees or you cannot get there.  There were (of course) no adverse impacts on the career of the journalist writing this story.

My reaction when reading the story was thinking that if the US military was as incompetent as the US press the Soviets would have occupied Omaha (Strategic Air Command headquarters) years and years ago. (We were in a cold war with the USSR at the time.) Unlike Crichton, my further reaction was not to read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate than what I knew was obviously wrong. It was to make me deeply suspicious of everything else I read in the news (except perhaps the funnies and the crossword puzzle).

Donald Douglas used to say about airliners: “If the tray tables are dirty and broken, passengers wonder about the state of the landing gear and flaps.” In the same way, ever after, I wondered if they made this big an error about basic facts in a story I knew something about, how trustworthy could they be in stories where I had to depend upon them?

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  1. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    There’s writing from ignorance  without malicious, provocative  or other mischievous intent. I’ll accept that as someone writing who is misinformed or too lazy to check or just ignorant (not educated.)

    We are now expected to accept the writing of people who lie to purpose as new fact, regardless of whether it differs to what we know to be truth. I think there will be more intense pressure for individuals to publicly accept lies (like pick yours or  your child’s sex from the list of 78) and to submit to the policies that derive. Such writing is not misinformation – it’s just lies.  once again Crichton was ahead of his time. 

    NB: golly you had an interesting job. You add real insight to some if the truly great things the US used to do. 

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    EODmom (View Comment):

    NB: golly you had an interesting job. You add real insight to some if the truly great things the US used to do. 

    The US still does. SpaceX has made 22 launches already this year, and other US companies 3 more. The US leads the rest of the world 25 launches to 19 and SpaceX alone has more than doubled the amount of launches the Chinese have done this year to date (10).

    And right now I am working on a program to put a space station in Lunar orbit. It uses ion drive, something that was SF when I was a kid, but is routinely being used today.

    • #2
  3. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    EODmom (View Comment):

    NB: golly you had an interesting job. You add real insight to some if the truly great things the US used to do.

    The US still does. SpaceX has made 22 launches already this year, and other US companies 3 more. The US leads the rest of the world 25 launches to 19 and SpaceX alone has more than doubled the amount of launches the Chinese have done this year to date (10).

    And right now I am working on a program to put a space station in Lunar orbit. It uses ion drive, something that was SF when I was a kid, but is routinely being used today.

    I love that you are living SF. I read so much of it before it became more fantasy than science. Very cool. I do like that private exploration is working. I believe in that long run. Government hates risk. Well done.  

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Seawriter: Donald Douglas used to say about airliners: “If the tray tables are dirty and broken, passengers wonder about the state of the landing gear and flaps.” In the same way, ever after, I wondered if they made this big an error about basic facts in a story I knew something about, how trustworthy could they be in stories where I had to depend upon them?

    “Highly placed sources in a position to know who would only comment on condition of anonymity” is my trigger. How many sources? How highly placed? Would knowing their identity add or detract from their reliability?

    Mark Lane was Deep Throat.

    • #4
  5. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I have gone from feeling they get it wrong, to thinking that no matter how much I Hate them, it is not enough.

     

    • #5
  6. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    EODmom (View Comment):
    I love that you are living SF. I read so much of it before it became more fantasy than science.

    Read Baen science fiction. Yes, they publish some fantasy, but they publish a lot of SF. Five of their six March releases are SF. And it is upbeat SF – like what was available in the 1950s and 1960s.

    • #6
  7. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    EODmom (View Comment):
    I love that you are living SF. I read so much of it before it became more fantasy than science.

    Read Baen science fiction. Yes, they publish some fantasy, but they publish a lot of SF. Five of their six March releases are SF. And it is upbeat SF – like what was available in the 1950s and 1960s.

    What a great referral! SF got me through some really hard family time during grad school. I believe it all. Thank you. 

    • #7
  8. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    I also remember the first time I read an article in The Washington Post about a DoD-related issue I was working on. The article was written to give the impression that the DoD was the problem and generally to imply malevolence. It was somewhat subtle, but I could see that it was misleading, if not inaccurate, reporting. This was about 5 months before a Presidential election, and the bureaucrats in charge would not act until after the election. They figured they would start only to be stopped by new political leadership. Or they were dragging their feet to avoid giving George W. Bush any credit for environmental cleanup.

    I asked a colleague who had worked in journalism, possibly at the Post, why the writers wrote it the way they did. His explanation was that they probably just didn’t know any better. I just didn’t buy it. I may have already started noticing  left-wing bias in the press before that, but I definitely became more attuned to it after that. And shortly thereafter, I read Until Proven Innocent about the Duke Lacrosse “rape” case and realized how much bias there truly was.

    *****

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    • #8
  9. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    I recall an Obama press flack who opined that the current press corps didn’t know ANYTHING and that the White House press monkeys just spoon-fed the press whatever it was that they wanted them to know.   Ben Rhodes perhaps?

    • #9
  10. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    But don’t worry–the elections are fine! If it were not so, the journalists would have told us. Shut up, conspiracy theorist.

    • #10
  11. Rightfromthestart Coolidge
    Rightfromthestart
    @Rightfromthestart

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    But don’t worry–the elections are fine! If it were not so, the journalists would have told us. Shut up, conspiracy theorist.

    The most secure EVER! 

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Rightfromthestart (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    But don’t worry–the elections are fine! If it were not so, the journalists would have told us. Shut up, conspiracy theorist.

    The most secure EVER!

    They were the most secure ever. But they weren’t securing the same thing we want to be secured.

    • #12
  13. Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    But don’t worry–the elections are fine! If it were not so, the journalists would have told us. Shut up, conspiracy theorist.

    Paraphrasing the New GR or the Old GR?

    • #13
  14. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Globalitarian Lower Order Misa… (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    But don’t worry–the elections are fine! If it were not so, the journalists would have told us. Shut up, conspiracy theorist.

    Paraphrasing the New GR or the Old GR?

    Sounds like EJ to me.

    • #14
  15. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Lilly B (View Comment):
    And shortly thereafter, I read Until Proven Innocent about the Duke Lacrosse “rape” case and realized how much bias there truly was.

    You could replace “bias” with “malevolence”.

    • #15
  16. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Great post.

    The lesson, from both the post and the comments, is that our major media is badly infected with bias, and as giving us a lot of false information.  I doubt that everything reported in the media is false, but skepticism is warranted, particularly on issues involving political questions of importance.

    How would all of you apply this lesson to the important issues being reported right now?

    What about the war in Ukraine?  Our media, I think, follows an overwhelmingly pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian narrative.  Under this narrative, the Russian invasion was unprovoked.  The Russians engaged in war crimes and mass slaughter of Ukrainian civilians.  The Russians have suffered badly disproportionate deaths and casualties, perhaps in the 3:1 or even 5:1 range.  Early on, we were even told that the sanctions would cripple the Russian economy.  There is no problem with neo-Nazis in Ukraine.  Putin is bound and determined to conquer eastern, then central, then western Europe.

    That’s basically the narrative, right?

    What if it’s all false?

    There’s the conflict in Gaza.  Again, I think that our media follows an overwhelmingly pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian narrative.  The Palestinians are all genocidal monsters who seek to murder every single Jew.  On October 7, they beheaded babies, slaughtered civilians indiscriminately, and engaged in systematic mass rape.  Hamas uses the civilian population of Gaza as human shields, but the population of Gaza isn’t innocent anyway, as even the civilians support Hamas.  The Israelis have been carefully targeting Hamas, with some unfortunate and unavoidable civilian casualties.  The IDF is the most moral military in the world.  The figures for the deaths of women and children in Gaza are false and inflated.  The Israelis have been doing there very best to provide food and humanitarian assistance to the civilians.

    That’s the narrative, right?

    Again, what if this is all false?

    There are others to consider.  China.  Yemen.  Iran.

    If we can’t rely on our media, where should we get information?

    • #16
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