The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, The New Yorker, and Pau Gasol
Yesterday I was reading an article about the first female assistant coach in the NBA in the latest issue of the New Yorker. The piece was moderately interesting and not particularly worth sharing here, except for one paragraph, and really just one sentence within it (emphasis mine):
Because of their success, the Spurs have not been eligible for the highest picks in the draft. Instead of relying on college superstars, they have built their team through some crafty trades and by pushing their young players to the limit. They scout top international players—like Parker, from France, and Manu Ginóbili, from Argentina—and sign N.B.A. veterans like Pau Gasol, from Spain, who is thirty-seven but can anchor a defense and move in a way that creates space on the floor; they also, as in the case of Leonard, hone the raw athletic talent of less experienced players. When the Spurs are at their best, the ball moves fluidly and freely. Duncan, who retired in 2016 and was perhaps the least flashy major star in the N.B.A., was emblematic of the team’s unselfish style. On a given night, almost anyone on the roster can be the leading scorer.
The whole thing seems relatively innocuous and is largely accurate: The Spurs success has been driven, at least in part, by incredibly successful drafting (Manu Ginóbili, a key player in their multi-championship run, was picked in the second round and is widely considered one of the best draft picks ever). With that said, though, Pau Gasol is most definitely not a defensive anchor. He’s a pretty good rebounder and he’s a giant, but he’s slow and famous almost entirely for his prowess on the offensive end of the court. In fact, earlier this season his coach, Gregg Popovich, said in a needling way that, “He likes offense better than defense.”1
Now obviously this is one tiny point in a giant article. But it happens to be an article about a subject I’m kind of obsessed with (the NBA) and that’s pretty rare for a magazine that covers a huge diversity of topics.
Which brings me to the title of this post: The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.
Named after famous physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the Amnesia Effect was coined by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton to describe the act of feeling skeptical as you read a magazine or newspaper article about an area in which you have expertise and then completely forgetting that skepticism as you turn the page and read about something you know less about. If they could get it so wrong for one, why don’t we assume they could get it so wrong for all?
Here’s Michael Crichton explaining it:
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.
The Gasol slip up put me in a funny state with my favorite magazine: What misportrayals, however small, do I take for granted when I read about topics like Catholicism or pharmaceuticals? What bothers me even more is that I feel some guilt even writing this. In this moment of conversations about fake news, questioning a publication that is unquestionably a beacon of extraordinary journalism (and fact-checking!) feels like adding fuel to a fire that’s trying to burn down my house.
But reading with skepticism is something we should all do, not because we don’t trust the publication, but because it’s our responsibility to be media literate and develop our own points of view. The biggest problem I have with the conversation around fake news is that it makes it more difficult to legitimately critique the media, something we should all be doing more often.
In the meantime, I’m going to hope the New Yorker stays away from basketball …
1 Because I can’t go through this without making it clear: The Gasol thing is an opinion and not fact and some might argue that the act of being a center makes you a defensive anchor. I spoke to a friend who is a Spurs fanatic and reinforced my raised eyebrow reaction with a “Umm hell no” to the label applied to Gasol.