Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, The New Yorker, and Pau Gasol

Yesterday I was reading an article about the first female assistance 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 its 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 have 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 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.

April 15, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Testing Media Literacy

Last week I sent myself an email with this quote from Felix Salmon’s blog post about the media’s response to the Boston mayhem:

There’s an art to working out where to find fast and reliable information, and to judging new information in light of old information, and to judging old information in light of new information. And there’s an art to synthesizing everything you know, from hundreds of different sources, into a single coherent narrative. It’s not easy, it’s not a skill that most people have, and it’s precisely where news organizations add value.

I have been thinking (and talking) a fair amount about media literacy lately and this quote seemed to sum up the challenge really nicely. Media literacy is a very hard thing to nail down because, unlike regular literacy, it’s pretty hard to test for. Ultimately I think it’s about making sure people understand the role of media (whatever that might mean) in the way they experience and interact with the world around them. That can mean simply being aware that the order of the Google results you’re seeing are most likely not the same as mine (even for the same query) to, as Felix says, “working out where to find fast and reliable information.” Media literacy, like regular literacy I guess, is a scale (one with an ever-moving endgame, but I guess the same could be said of language).

Anyway, when I read this quote from Felix I thought of a few different games I like to play with myself that, although I never really thought of them that way, were sort of mini media-literacy tests:

The Snopes Test: When you read something, especially an email from a distant family member, you can immediately sniff out whether you’re going to be able to find an entry for it on Snopes. Knowing whether it’s been proven true or false is good for bonus points.

The GoDaddy Test: This is a funny one, and definitely less useful than the Snopes test, but it’s interesting to predict whether a random domain name someone comes up with is already taken or not.

The Wikipedia Test: This one is actually important I think. If I gave you a random topic, say Snoop Dogg, could you predict whether or not Wikipedia would be the top result? (Bonus points if you predict the actual top result.)

Anyway, all these things help illustrate the challenge with media literacy, which is ultimately it’s an “I know it when I see it” skill. With that said, it’s one that will continue to have a larger and larger impact on culture as more people’s voices (and information) become a part of the news we all sift through on a daily basis.

April 28, 2013 // This post is about: , , ,