Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Gell-Mann amnesia in politics

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Gell-Mann amnesia is exemplified by a newspaper reader who recognizes the incompetence of journalists in his own area of expertise—but fails to consider that they could be equally incompetent in other areas. We might then have a physicist note that yet another article on physics in a newspaper was drivel, turn to the section on politics, and uncritically read on as if the journalists suddenly were competent.

Already, we see potential political dangers, as journalists are quite influential, have a great reach, disproportionately often write on matters directly or indirectly political, and, thereby, influence the political opinions and voting patterns of the people. Indeed, even the culture sections of newspapers often go into political topics unrelated to culture. Except for the sports and comic sections, it can actually be hard to find material not at least indirectly political. (Including much of science, through e.g. environmental and energy issues.)

However, is this problem really restricted to journalists? Is it not likely that the same applies elsewhere? Michael Crichton, the coiner of the phrase, seems have suggested that journalists were a unique case. I am not so certain.

Certainly, if someone suffers from Gell-Mann amnesia with journalists, it would not be unlikely to see the same problem with at least politicians—and now we can suspect even worse problems.

I suggest that the reader thinks back to times when politicians have spoken on issues where he has expertise—and to consider (a) whether they truly got things right and, if not, (b) whether he is sufficiently suspicious of politicians in other areas.

Teaching is another potential area where both an extended version of Gell-Mann amnesia and politics can be of interest. Considering the large proportion of teachers that know too little about their alleged fields of expertise, chances are that someone with true expertise has observed a great deal of bumbling—but will that suffice to convince him of the unreliability of teachers as a source of authority in other fields?

(However, with teachers, other problems might be more likely, e.g. that the students are too young to recognize incompetence, while the parents are not sufficiently involved, or that some younger students might be fooled by something like the “halo effect” or an undue belief in the competence of adults.)

Chances are that other cases yet exist, especially, if we look at individuals with an undue amount of admiration for a certain profession and relax the focus on politics.


(I use “journalist[s]” below for simplicity. Similar claims often apply for e.g. “politician[s]”.)

  1. While journalists seem to be globally lacking in competence, some above details might be country-specific or vary from type of newspapers to type of newspaper, e.g. regarding what does or does not appear in a culture section and how common culture sections are.

  2. Gell-Mann amnesia was coined by sci-fi writer Michael Crichton in reference to physicist Murray Gell-Mann, with whom he had once discussed the topic; however, not necessarily with an implication that Gell-Mann would have been particularly vulnerable to it—and I add no such implication of my own.

    (The problem is also often rendered as “Gell-Mann amnesia effect”, which introduces an ambiguity as to whether “Gell-Mann” modifies “amnesia” or “effect”. Crichton might well have intended the latter.)

  3. Beware of the opposite danger of observing an isolated display of incompetence and drawing too large conclusions about the person or profession at hand.

    For instance, if a physicist repeatedly finds that even the alleged “science journalists” show great deficits in physics knowledge, this allows him to raise suspicions about what journalists with other areas of expertise truly know and understand. An isolate incident need not do so. Moreover, if he finds that a journalist with another area of expertise makes a stupid statement about physics, it need not tell us much about how the journalist would have fared within that area. Vice versa, a science journalist might still have been knowledgable about physics, even if the non-science journalist was not.

    The simple truth is that no-one is an expert at everything. I certainly have made my share of mistakes over the years and especially in fields where I was taking first steps.

    However, and that, too, is the simple truth: I have seen so many errors and/or deliberate distortions made by journalists in so many fields and in several countries that I can only urge great caution when dealing with journalists, news reporting, etc. Ditto teachers and politicians. Moreover, note that even when most in some profession happen to be competent, the risk of finding a bad apple can be so large that great caution is required. (Ditto when even most are, e.g., honest.) If it is unfair to make the generalization that “all X are Y”, the claim “sufficiently many X are Y that I take precautions” might still be perfectly valid. (Where the exact precautions will depend on the field, the personal situation, the context, whatnot, at hand.)

  4. Lack of knowledge and understanding is not the only problem common with journalists—a lack of ability to think, think critically, apply knowledge and understanding, etc., is another. (Maybe, the more common.) This lack of ability tends to apply much more generally even for a given individual journalist.

    Likewise, ideological biases and agenda pushing are quite common.

    Both can lead to poor journalism that the “amnesiac” might all to soon “forget”.

  5. It does not necessarily follow that journalists are more incompetent than others. My opinion of humanity as a whole is not very high and the point of Gell-Mann amnesia is not (or not primarily) that journalists would be incompetent but that they receive undeserved credibility in fields A–Y even in the face of evidence of incompetence in field Z.

    They are, however, (a) rarely competent enough for the job at hand, (b) members of a profession where the consequences of incompetence can be unusually negative for the world. (Ditto politicians and teachers.)

Excursion on one-man variations

In the above disclaimers, I note how the ignorance of a non-specialist need not tell us very much and how it is the sum of all journalists (etc.) that matter—not any given individual.

However, something very similar to Gell-Mann amnesia can be relevant for individuals too. Take a book by a seemingly insightful and knowledgable author that suddenly contains a whopper of an error. And what about that politician who tries to project an aura of being knowledgable, wise, whatnot, and makes a similar whopper of an error? And, throwing a wider net of consistency, what about the politician who talks big on the rights and interest of some group and then is caught disregarding these rights and interests when he thought that no-one was looking?

To stick with the author:

If the error is in a joint field of expertise of both author and reader, chances are that the former will lose greatly in the eyes of the latter. (With some reservations for the type of error, e.g. with regard to what might be an actual deficit in knowledge or understanding and what might be a moment of sloppiness, or where an older work might reflect the state of science at the time of writing, but not automatically at the time of reading.)

However, what does and what should happen when the author makes an excursion from his own field of expertise to that of the reader and is caught in such a whopper of an error?

The “does” opens the possibility for something very much like Gell-Mann amnesia, e.g. in that an amnesiac reader assumes that the author gets everything else right, including various excursions into fields where neither is an expert.

The “should” can be quite tricky to judge. Factors to consider include how much expertise the author claims in the field of the error, with what degree of certainty the claim is made, whether the error is a common one among non-experts, and similar. (As well, of course, as issues like a temporary sloppiness.) An interesting special case is when the author tries to draw on other fields in order to create an image of intellectual accomplishment, as when a post-modernist pseudo-intellectual tries to strengthen his image by drawing on physics or some other harder science, of which he actually only has a fleeting knowledge. (Note e.g. the Sokal/Bricmont book “Fashionable Nonsense”, which discusses such problems in some detail.) Another, when the propagation of a particular error is particularly damaging and/or there is reason to suspect an ideological background behind the error. (Note e.g. the many authors who propagate deeply ignorant and harmful claims about I.Q., say, that I.Q. would only indicate how well someone does on an I.Q. test, that any and all I.Q. differences between groups would be a matter of “cultural bias”, and that I.Q. would, absurdly, be “discredited”.)


“Fashionable Nonsense” gives an interesting example of a “should” approach: it limits its judgment to matters of science and explicitly offers the possibility that what else is found in the analyzed works might be correct.

This might be a sane and sound solution, in that it (a) allows a considerable skepticism about the rest of the work at hand, but (b) does not jump to premature judgment about the ideas outside science or, for that matter, the rest of the post-modernist philosophers and whatnots. (To (b), note similar remarks about journalists above and how it is the sheer mass of errors that proves the field of journalism problematic. Further, note that the problems with post-modernism, by all that I have seen over the years, are not limited to faulty science.)

We might even add a (c) of protecting the authors from making a misstatement on a philosophical issue that they, themselves, do not understand—and/or, by avoiding such misstatements, from criticism of e.g. hypocrisy. (The overall topic, apparently, is very touchy in France.)

Disclaimer: My own reading of “Fashionable Nonsense” is a few years back and my memory of the details vague.

For my part, I have made sufficiently many own errors that I am forgiving to some degree—and, to some degree, I find poor reasoning, a poor intellectual attitude, whatnot, to be a greater problem than factual errors and misunderstandings. However, when errors, let alone poor reasoning, are more than rare exceptions, I am quickly turned off and either stop reading or read on with a great overall skepticism. To boot, I do consider it more justified to criticize e.g. a published book than a one-man website, as the book author should have had access to more support, including pre-publication readers of various kinds, and has less ability to correct errors after the fact, which calls for a greater “due diligence” before publication. (The same applies, m.m., to e.g. politicians holding speeches and journalists being published in leading newspapers.)


More generally, even with authors who have not blundered in my eyes, I appear to take a more skeptical approach than others (and much younger versions of myself), in that I might read a book and have a take-away of e.g. “X says that Y was caused by Z”, while many others have the take-away “Y was caused by Z—period”.

(TODO link to relevant Wordpress texts after import.)

Excursion on myself and on twists on the amnesia idea

I can say in good conscience that I have not suffered from Gell-Mann amnesia beyond, on the outside, an early age: I have ever and ever again seen journalists (and politicians and teachers) make errors great and small, and seen my overall impression grow correspondingly worse and worse.

Into my twenties, however, I did have a problem somewhat similar to Gell-Mann amnesia, in that I was slow to catch on to the sheer amount of stupidity and whatnot in the world, and “under-generalized” based on observations: I saw great incompetence (lack of sound judgment, lack of understanding, or some other deficit) in one group but assumed that those not in that group were still mostly competent, saw incompetence in another group but assumed that those in neither of the two groups were still mostly competent, etc., until I was forced to conclude that most humans are incompetent—notwithstanding that certain groups might be considerably more prone to incompetence than others.

I have also, myself, often been on the receiving end of a “reverse amnesia” of sorts, especially, during my school days:

In disputes with other students about what was correct, better, whatnot, I was almost always provably in the right when there was a provable/checkable answer. (For instance, what the solution to a certain math problem was. For instance, on one memorable occasion, whether the U.S. had 50 or 52 states.)

This, however and excepting math, rarely gave me greater credibility the next time around. Worse, in situations where there was no provable/checkable answer, or one not as easily provable/checkable, e.g. matters of politics, even complete nits often insisted on being right, with no regard for our respective prior track records.

(Note that this went well beyond the healthy skepticism that might have safe-guarded against a “halo effect”, in that the expert on topic A is not automatically the expert on topic B.)

Excursion on misqualified groups

An interesting similarity between politicians and journalists is that both are often given areas or tasks of responsibility that do not match the (true or alleged) area of expertise. (In a discussion of Gell-Mann amnesia, this does not make matters better. It might give the individual politician or journalist some excuse, but it does not resolve the problem of incompetence throughout the field. On the contrary, it makes it the more important to be aware of insufficient competence regardless of how it arises.)

A science journalist, e.g., might write about physics by dint of being a science journalist—and be a science journalist by dint of being a biology major. As for journalists writing on politics, that degree in English, journalism, or creative writing might not be the ideal qualification.

Politicians, in turn, might receive appointments more based on influence in the party, experience as politicians, or similar, rather than expertise or experience in the field at hand. Note e.g. how German politics sees endless coalition governments and how the leader of the second largest party in the coalition is usually give the position of foreign secretary/minister/whatnot—regardless of qualifications and because this, in Germany, happens to be the second most prestigious post. (The leader of the largest party typically becomes chancellor/“prime minister”, which, of course, is the one post even more prestigious; however, one that might require less specialized knowledge than most other posts.)


This looking at e.g. ministers and other positions usually given by appointment. If we look at the elected, we have to consider issues like the relative importance of image and substance to be elected. Moreover, party-internal politics often play in here too, e.g. in that the party might decide who does or does not stand as a sole candidate, who is on a list of candidates, etc. (Here there are great variations from country to country.)

Another common trend is that someone begins with a post lacking in prestige in one government (say, relating to education or family), moves to another and more prestigious, but entirely unrelated, if the government is reelected, then another and another as the elections go by.

This brings me to an issue that I have previously noted with teachers:

Teachers are often poorly qualified in the topics that they respectively teach, while having received an endless education in “how to educate”. (With great variations from country to country and time to time, however.)

Ditto, m.m., journalists, who might begin with a formal education in “how to write”, but have no or only marginal insight into matters like politics.

Ditto, m.m., politicians: Nice J.D.—now, what do you actually know about history and economics? And what do you know about your alleged field of specialization? (History and economics are, in my eyes, the most important topics for a politician to know. That they usually do not, explains much.)

This misprioritization often tells, and is a strong reason for why these groups have such competence deficits relative their importance. Worse, they are not even necessarily very good in the areas of their nominal qualifications, maybe, as a side-effect of having qualifications that filter poorly for intelligence. Journalists, e.g., are often astonishingly poor writers.

Now, it is true that formal qualifications are not everything, and I strongly believe in the value of independent own learning. However, many or most in these groups appear to have little interest in such learning (or to be very bad at it), maybe, again, as a side-effect of having qualifications that filter poorly for intelligence.

Excursion on disagreement

A caution is to not take mere disagreement for being wrong. Many disagreements are based on one or both parties being wrong in a reasonably objective and factual manner; many others arise for different reasons, e.g. a difference in priorities. If a disagreement has arisen through a difference in priorities, the parties might still be equally competent or incompetent, knowledgable or ignorant, etc. (The problem in the aforementioned cases is, of course, problems in the more “objective and factual” area. Note that a difference in priorities might still justify a negative opinion of someone, but, if so, for an off-topic reason and with different implications.)

Excursion on other generalizations

As a bit of thought shows, there are quite a few potential generalizations in various directions. I will not expand on these, but I note e.g. (for a close connection) how several encounters with bumbling physicians might give a legitimate reason to doubt the credibility of physicians, even in the face of their traditional reputation and status, and (for a more remote one) “cancer is dangerous, but it will never happen to me” thinking.


Even long before the COVID-debacle, where a great many physicians showed grave deficits, be it in competence, courage, willingness to think for themselves, whatnot, I had made very mixed experiences with physicians—and this is indeed a contributing reason to why I only visit one when I have to.

To give the single most negative example: I was home from work with an illness and had just a few days to a very important meeting. Instead of resting at home, I went to the nearest physician to see if something could be done to give me a rapid cure or, failing that, some type of pep-up for the important day. Two or three “medicines” were prescribed. I went to the nearest pharmacy, picked them up, went home, crawled into bed—and discovered that all of them were homeopathic quackery. These were guaranteed not to help me in anyway, and I was still stuck with the physician’s bill, the costs for the medicines, the wasted time, and the risk that the excursion had worsened my health compared to staying in bed. (The physician’s bill comes with the reservation that I wrote a very angry letter, refused payment, and never heard back. Many others would have payed anyway.)

Either this physician deliberately pushed “medicines” that she knew did not work, or she was not in possession of a piece of information in her own field of alleged expertise that (a) is vital to any physician, (b) I would expect the average high-school (!) graduate to know. In either case, she had no place practicing medicine.