The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect & Failure to Make Connections

Michael Crichton came up with the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, and explains it thus:

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.

I first became painfully aware of this when Proposition 1o3 was on the ballot in California back in 1988. At the time, I worked in insurance, and had first-hand access to the people and information on the ‘no’ side. What was amazing to me – hey, I’m congenitally naive – was how the concerns and goals of the insurance companies were consistently misrepresented. The only thing the press coverage of Prop 103 ever got right – you’ll be shocked – was that the insurance companies were in to make money.(1)  They never made the connection between not offering insurance or having unaffordable rates and not making money, though – that insurance companies, *because* they want to make money, would not red-line or price themselves out of a market *unless* they could not make money at it. Not racism, not fear of poor neighborhoods, not hatred of teenage males, not dislike of cheap performance cars – but the simple fact that nobody had yet figured out how to sell insurance to certain demographics and make any money out of it.(2)  Because, in the end, in the real world, businesses need to make money or they and the services they provide cease to exist. (3)

In an odd way, this story illustrates the point I want to make about how the Gell-Mann Effect is a special case of a more general characteristic of us humans: that when we learn something, we often fail nonetheless to make the obvious application of that knowledge to the next obvious case. Here, the reporters noted correctly that the insurance companies wanted to make money – in the shorthand of politics, that they were greedy. But then with the next breath, they’d report that these companies were obviously motivated by racism or sexism or something – even though the first bit of knowledge – they they were in it for the money – was an obvious and sufficient explanation.(4)

I have a friend who didn’t get his PhD in history for reasons that were never explained to him. The fellowships upon which he (and PhD candidates in general) relied upon to get him through the process, which were largely awarded by or based on the recommendations of the faculty, dried up. No explanation was ever given; no appeal ever brooked. He was just driven out of his program. (5)

Yet we argue regularly about beliefs inculcated or nurtured by universities as though they were somehow Gospel: a flat moral universe, Marxist analysis, the evils of capitalism and the US in general, just the mish-mash of ill-formed and irrational ideas that form the meat of modern post-secondary education. He himself knows first hand that the gatekeepers can keep out whomever they choose with no explanation, no chance at rebuttal, no appeal. Yet he does not therefore reexamine how it is that on almost all campuses everywhere in America some ideas are Accepted Wisdom while other are lumped together under Fascism or some other ism, and asking exactly how and why this is so gets the exact same treatment: No explanation is ever given; no appeal ever brooked. These bad ideas are just driven out of the impolite society of the desperate and vulnerable that make up the students and teachers.

Maybe we could call the more generalized idea the No PhD For You! Effect? I’m open to better suggestions.

In short, while it seems likely to me that this rigid compartmentalization is related somehow to how we humans are wired on some fundamental level,(6) our failure to see connections is nurtured and polished to a shiny-shine  by the compartmentalization of subject and grade in school. Where a classic education invites us to see how math, say, relates to the real world, and how poetry expresses morality and human aspirations, how, in short, the true, the beautiful and the good are one, modern education separates and isolates ideas. By the time kids get to college, they are all but incapable of making such connections, and have never been introduced to any reason why one would want to in the first place.

  1. Unlike the reporters writing the stories, who consistently turn down raises and promotions and give their excess earnings to the poor.
  2. The history of the insurance industry is in large part the story of people figuring out how to make money selling insurance to people who couldn’t get it otherwise. So, you can be really sure, as sure as you are that insurance companies want to make money, that any number of insurance companies have devoted real resources to selling insurance to *everybody* who could need it, regardless of the race, age, address, and vehicles they drive. Not because they’re into social justice or are saints of some kind – but because they want to make money.
  3. The company I worked for ended up moving their headquarters – and several hundred jobs – out of California, not so much because Prop 103 in itself made California unprofitable, but because it lowered the bar on demagoguery and stupidity so much that simple prudence dictated they not keep all their eggs in that political basket.
  4. The personal anti-business, pro-socialist tendencies of the reporters muddy this up, of course.
  5. The current Twitter kerfuffle, for another example, follows this pattern exactly. As I’ve harped on before, the signature feature of Hegelian (and, by extension, Marxist) thinking is that those who are unenlightened cannot be reasoned with – thus, purges are conducted without any need to hear the other side, and only explained for the benefit of believers. The victim himself is beyond help by definition.
  6. For example, I’m not sure most people most of the time don’t simply keep the various things they learn separate for simple efficiency’s sake. I’m not sure guys like me, who lose sleep wondering about how Calvin’s Catechism affects modern analytic philosophy, or if hybrid vigor is, in itself, an evolutionary adaptation, for a couple examples, are actually favored in the race for survival.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect & Failure to Make Connections”

  1. So you’re saying Lewis’ Abolition of Man was right? 😉

    I can NOT tell you how much of this I’ve seen on the Internet and how saddening it is. Right now, if you want, I can email you examples of people who reject the liberal narrative, but accept the paradigm.

    Actually I don’t need to email you, just look up any discussion where “horseshoe” theory gets mentioned. So many people wake up and realize how much leftism has lied to them throughout their entire life… then go on to reject ALL ideology (or whatever) because the conservatives are just as bad. Why are the conservatives just as bad? Because they were told that by the leftism narrative, it was things “everybody knows.”

    I really wish I could figure out how to get them to grasp that maybe they need to dump EVERYTHING and rebuild their knowledge base from scratch. Then again doing such would be long & hard so I guess good ole sloth is part of the reason for this.

    As I’ve harped on before, the signature feature of Hegelian (and, by extension, Marxist) thinking is that those who are unenlightened cannot be reasoned with – thus, purges are conducted without any need to hear the other side, and only explained for the benefit of believers.

    And the worse part? Those believers, in the process, make themselves unable to be reasoned with and incapable of hearing the other side, meaning they might eventually be purged in self-defense at least. That’s like… maximum irony isn’t it? Oh wait, how did Screwtape put it?

    (from his toast) “For suspicion often creates what it expects. (“Since, whatever I do, the neighbors are going to think me a witch, or a Communist agent, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and become one in reality.”) As a result we now have an intelligentsia which, though very small, is very useful to the cause of Hell.”

    1. Great points all. Got to find our copy of Abolition of Man – must be 30+ years since I read it, so, while it’s always nice to find one’s self in agreement with Lewis, I didn’t do it on purpose.

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