You Forget What You Know (Gell-Mann Amnesia)

“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 (author and filmmaker, 1942-2008)

That’s a really good observation.

As an aside, Murray Gell-Mann was  an influential theoretical physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969 for his work on fundamental particles. He was based at the California Institute of Technology and later went on to co-found the famous Sante Fe Institute (for the study of complex systems).

He and the more well-known Richard Feynman were famous collaborators and later ‘rivals’. I’ve written quite a few posts on Feynman (two of the most popular are here and here).

There’s an illuminating talk by Gell-Mann on Edge (The Making of a Physicist) and a very well-wriitten biography if you’d like more details. From the former, an interesting and somewhat provocative quote:

“Dick (Feynman) and I had different talents. His great talent was for finding marvelously clever mathematical tricks for expressing theories in physics and then solving problems using those tricks, which always involved a great deal of physical insight. He was less good at finding new physical theories and getting them right, whereas I seem to have had a talent for finding out what was going on and guessing the right theory.”

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