Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect: Preach It, Brother!

This morning, at the end of a staff meeting, a couple coworkers and friends began discussing a fire that had partially destroyed a couple buildings at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley over the weekend. One of my friends is a long-time member of that congregation, so condolences were in order.

He was annoyed that the news kept calling it the ‘First Congressional Church’. (1) Couldn’t they, the reporters, learn just a little church history? (2) As if reporters ever bothered to learn anything! (3)   The unfortunate burning of a church building did, however, present a Teachable Moment.(4)

I opined that, when it comes to religion, reporters can be counted on to get it wrong about 99% of the time, and mentioned Deacon Kandra , (who used to be here with more press criticism), who worked in the media for decades, and made a major hobby  out of pointing out the pervasive and suspiciously willful-looking ignorance of our 4th estate when it came to matters of religion. It’s almost like they don’t want to get it right!

Anyway, got a chance to mention the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, in reference to a clear and present case – a church fire, wherein the press took a couple days to get the name of the church right – a name easily available on the internet, or, wow, even on the signs marking the property they reporting from in front of. I trusted completely without any further evidence, that my friend knew details about the fire that the press had also gotten wrong, in their more general way of just sloppiness and on-the-spot data selection story-fitting.(5)

So, made Michael Crichton’s point: if the news can’t get simple facts about a church fire correct, how could you possibly trust them to give accurate information about the economy, or the Middle East, or Congress, or the energy sector? Much more complex things that require much greater expertise to really understand? The answer is that of course you cannot. We decided you can pretty much trust them to get sports scores correct, probably because there are 100,000,000 or so people who would leap in to correct them if they were wrong. (6)  But when the media tells you Congress is bogged down over issues x, y, and z, or that the Israelis are blowing up Palestinian civilians for utterly inscrutable reasons a, b, and c, or that China’s human rights record is improving while North Carolina’s has regressed to intolerable – maybe, just maybe, they have no idea what they’re talking about. But since that shampoo and beer aren’t going to sell themselves, they got to say something, the more soothingly in line with the existing prejudices or story lines, the better.

Shall we fight mis- and dis-information? Or shall we roll over and resume our dogmatic slumber? The smart money and the earnest hopes of the heart are at odds here.

  1. Within a day or two, to give proper credit, the media had gotten the name right, at least.
  2. Reporters? How about anybody at all? It’s not just Sunnis and Shiites that people can’t tell apart – Congregationalists and Presbyterians, for one example among many, are equally indistinguishable. Of course, now days, are they distinguishable in any practicals sense? Muslims, at least, bring their theological differences to the front of the stage by periodically trying to kill each other over them. The unformed doughy mass of American protestants, not so much, any more, at least. From a law-and-order POV, this is doubtless an improvement. But for theological clarity (which the Congregationalists, it must be acknowledged, disdain – for theological reasons) the current truce by appeasement between Protestants is not helping.
  3. Not you, the reporter reading this, of course – the other guy.
  4. See how condescending and insulting that sounds when said of an adult? Why is it any better when said about a child?
  5. The fire, according to my friend, almost certainly resulted from something workers readying the roof for solar panel installation did. This taking place in Berkeley, I’m having uncharitable thoughts about virtue-signally getting its revenge. But we will fight manfully to suppress such thoughts, unless it turns out a couple Prius and a Chevy Volt, driven there for a meeting of a committee to divest church funds from evil petroleum companies, were also destroyed – then, I’m going to allow myself a venial chuckle before getting back to sympathizing with the folks whose old church buildings get burned down.
  6. This might change, if there ever where major political points to be scored based on who did and did not win this or that game.
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Author: Joseph Moore

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

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