- Gell-Mann Earworms
By Holden Karnofsky 5 min read

Gell-Mann Earworms

Consider 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 [Michael Crichton’s], 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 think “baloney” goes a bit far. But I think it’s genuinely true that most of what you read is some combination of:

  • Underinformed, because professional writers are rarely experts; because real experts often can’t write all that well; and because it's hard even for experts to know everything relevant for the topic at hand (especially when the topic doesn't fit well within a particular field).
  • Biased, if only because they’re written by human beings.
  • Systematically misleading, partly because most of what you read is ultimately on something much closer to an “entertainment” business model (the author wants you to enjoy your experience) than an “accuracy” business model (the writer wants you to get accurate information). There are some norms and forces that reward accuracy and punish inaccuracy in writing, and they often catch blatant falsehoods, but I wouldn’t generally say there’s strong pressure on writers to give their readers an accurate overall understanding of reality.

I think most people agree with what I just wrote as they read it, but they don’t feel it day to day: they have Gell-Mann Amnesia.

Consider the opposite condition: Gell-Mann Earworms, in which “I can’t trust this” is constantly ringing in your ears as you read anything. (Very much including this blog!) If there were a browser extension that inserted “Based on a true story” at the beginning of every online piece, this might give a feel for having Gell-Mann Earworms.

This probably sounds unpleasant and scary, and that’s probably part of the reason people have Gell-Mann Amnesia. What do you DO in this case? How do you inform yourself if you really don’t trust anything?

As someone who tries to have Gell-Mann Earworms, I try to:

  • Learn about fewer things, more deeply. I decide which topics I’d really like to understand, and get really into them. That means reading multiple arguments, comparing them against each other, and trying to identify the sources of disagreement. It means reading academic papers instead of just news articles (and even books).
  • Think a lot about which writers and sources I trust most. This sometimes means spending inordinate time digging into one claim or one debate.
  • Separate learning about how things are, learning about how things are discussed, and entertainment. If I read a single news article on a topic, I may have just learned about how things are discussed, and I may have just gotten some entertainment. But I probably didn’t learn much about how things are. That would take a deeper dive.
    • Personally, I like knowing how things are discussed, so I do follow a Twitter feed and read news websites and such, but I don’t tend to think of this as “staying informed” (about anything other than how things are discussed).
  • Reserve judgment. For example, I really try not to form a negative opinion of anyone based on something I read about them, whether that’s a takedown of their argument, or a story about a scandal, or anything else.
    • If I really want to decide whether someone said something wrong/bad, I want to take the time to read their original words in context, as well as any later explanation they may have given, before I even start to judge them.
    • If I read a takedown of someone’s essay, I assume the author of the takedown probably misinterpreted them,1 and if I want to know for sure, I need to read the original in something close to its entirety.
    • I generally don’t consider myself justified in being offended by someone’s words or actions if I haven’t done at least an hour of research on the specific accusation in question. Unless there’s some specific reason that it’s worth it for me to spend that time, this means I usually don’t get mad at people by reading things. I haven’t identified any problems caused by this choice.
  • Think about what’s really worth understanding, given how much work it takes to understand something. What claims would be important - for my actions - if true? Many big stories just don’t qualify.

To live with Gell-Mann Earworms, I have to consider myself deeply ignorant about the vast majority of issues people around me are talking about. When my parents ask my opinion on the latest news story, I always try to make “I don’t know” my first response. (I’ll then give some opinions, for fun and because we need something to argue about or else they’ll start giving me life advice. But starting with “I don’t know” seems like the right habit.)

I generally think to myself, "I only know about the topics I can put some real time into understanding, and that’s not a lot of topics, and I’d better pick them carefully for my life goals."

I think this is a different mindset than most people have. I think it’s worth trying out.

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  1. Based on times when I have dug into debates and takedowns, I think the odds that someone is being misread are very high. I may give some examples in the future. 

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