On the Same PageThe paradox of Gell-Mann Amnesia.

On the Same PageThe paradox of Gell-Mann Amnesia.

Issue 52

, Starters

  • Words Ed Cumming
  • Photo Melissa Schriek

Many journalists write on a wide range of topics, which means they are used to readers letting them know exactly what they got wrong. While sometimes the criticism is merited, as when a specific error or misapprehension slips through, most of the time it is simply that the reader knows more about the subject than the journalist does. Journalists themselves are not immune from such righteous indignation. If there’s a piece on, say, how to write articles about writing articles, they will invariably find it wanting. 

Many readers, upon finding a mistake or reading a less nuanced understanding, will come away with a dimmer view of the publication. Why couldn’t they get world experts to write about everything, they might think. But they would be wise not to hold it against the writer for too long.

When it comes to articles discussing topics we know little about, fellow journalists and general readers alike will typically give the author the benefit of the doubt. If we read about the decline of Zulu drumming, or a new treatment for gum disease, or some radical Icelandic economic theorist, we will likely take it as gospel. This paradoxical phenomenon is so common that there is a name for it: Gell-Mann Amnesia.1 We assume the newspaper must be accurate and authoritative on every subject except the one we understand, which we know to be flawed. 

The professors who study Gell-Mann Amnesia will surely already be dipping their quills in green ink. “Who is this guy in Kinfolk, purporting to know about our amnesia? The rest of the magazine is spot-on, but this is an aberration.” Meanwhile, newcomers to the phenomenon will assume that this article has been written from a position of great authority. This Gell-Man Correspondent is very convincing, they will think, before spitting feathers about some other subject on which they happened to write their dissertation. A little knowledge might be a dangerous thing, but a lot will ruin a magazine.


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