The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

can a giant eraser remove the past?

“Can a giant raser remove the past?” Typewriter Eraser. Scale X, 1999, by Claes Oldenburg (American, born 1929, Sweden) and Coosje van Bruggen (American, born 1942, The Netherlands). Photo by Woodleywonders via Flicker (cc)

Came across this whilst reading Felix Salmon’s superb “Why you can’t trust journalism“. He links to Seekerblog’s 2006 post on “The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect“, who in turn quotes Michael Criton’s 2002 speech “Why Speculate?“:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works 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 with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

I have noticed this time and time again. People who lambaste the media for supporting something they oppose will uncritically quote the same media when they suddenly find themselves in agreement.

Another area I notice this is with Serbs commenting on other countries. Serbs have been demonized in the media for over 20 years. They have suffered the most appalling slanders, yet it has not equipped many of them at all to spot the same treatment of others.

When Denmark recently came under fire for extending its social welfare laws of asset confiscation to migrants, I had Serbian friends in all my timelines writing “F*ck Denmark!”, not wondering at all if the story was being portrayed accurately (which it was not).

See also:

Truth Leakage – How politicians and journalists often reveal the truth as metadata or background material when discussing a tangential topic.

Links for August 15th 2015 through September 6th 2015

Code of Conduct for Foreigners

Years ago, when I set up the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club, I wanted to formulate a Code of Conduct for members of the club, foreigners living in Serbia. I never did, but here is the list I came up with. It is a flawed list, sure, but it has served me well living almost my entire adult life  as an immigrant in multiple countries.

  1. Obey the laws – Obey the laws of the land, even the petty bureaucratic laws
  2. Contribute – Give something back economically, socially and culturally
  3. Be positive– Focus on the positives of your new home
  4. Be loyal – Be as loyal as you can to your host country
  5. Learn the language – Make an effort to learn at least the basics of the language
  6. Learn the history – Learn about the history of the country and its peoples
  7. Be neutral – Try and be as neutral as possible on contentious local matters or conflicts
  8. Try not to judge – Try not to be too judgemental about local negatives. Nowhere is perfect
  9. Show, don’t tell – Do not lecture the locals about how to be, act, think. Teach by example, not complaint
  10. If you hate the place, leave – If you hate the place, do not inflict your misery on others, be brave and leave

No justice for Serbs

Carla Del Ponte painted portrait _DDC7960

Creative Commons License thierry ehrmann via Compfight

For the second time in two weeks, the UN’s ICTY has released men accused of warcrimes against Serbs even though in both cases the evidence is damning.

The crimes happened. The victims and their families are real. But justice is not done.

Funny how its always justice for Serbs that seems to fail at the UN.

The prosecution keeps “failing to make its case”. No wonder when 9 prosecution witnesses were murdered as they were in the Ramush Haradinaj case.

The Serbs are right. The ICTY is victors justice. It is a travesty.

Boomerang effect in the Balkans: «The historic memory in the Balkans is long term»

Kosovo Serbs slam ex-Kosovo PM acquittal

Serbia sentences 14 for 1991 war crime in Croatia

How often do you read that Kosovo, or Croatia or Bosnia have prosecuted and jailed their war criminals? Rarely. 

In Serbia, I see these headlines frequently. 

It is not a case of Serbia having more war criminals to prosecute. There were many atrocities committed on all sides and only a fraction of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. 

I believe that Serbia’s War Crime prosecutor is simply more aggressive, more efficient, and supported politically and judicially. 

I am not sure this is true of the other combatant entities in the Balkan wars.

Yesterday the newswires picked up on the latest successful prosecution in Serbia: 

Serbia’s special war crimes court on Tuesday sentenced 14 former Yugoslav Army soldiers and paramilitaries to a total of 128 years in jail for the 1991 killings of 70 Croat civilians, some of whom were ordered to walk through a minefield.

In a ruling Belgrade hopes will boost its chances of joining the European Union, the court said it had been proven beyond doubt that the defendants were guilty of the killings, and of mistreating and torturing the civilian population.

In October 1991, the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army, allied with paramilitaries and local Serbs, swooped on the village of Lovas in eastern Croatia, immediately killing 22 ethnic Croats in their homes, the court said.

“They also killed another 23 people in improvised prisons … and forced civilians to walk through a mine field, which resulted in the deaths of 22 people,” it added. “Another three people were killed in isolated incidents.”

Serbia and the other countries that once made up the now defunct six-republic Yugoslavia are still struggling to come to terms with the wars that tore it apart in the 1990s, plunging Europe into bloodshed.

“With this (ruling) we have sent a reconciliatory message to all the war crimes victims throughout former Yugoslavia,” Bruno Vekaric, the assistant war crime prosecutor, told reporters in Belgrade.


Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, is trying to show the 27-nation bloc it is serious about prosecuting war crimes from the period in order to dispel concerns that it has dragged its feet over doing so in the past.

It hopes that such prosecutions – particularly in cases where the victims were non-Serbs – will speed up its efforts to join the EU.

After former strongman Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in 2000, Serbia said it was trying to step up its efforts to apprehend war criminals and extradite them to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague or to try them at home.

Milosevic himself died at the U.N. detention facility in The Hague while defending himself against charges he was guilty of war crimes and had fomented the Yugoslav wars.

Last year, Serbia arrested and extradited the two remaining most-wanted war crimes fugitives, Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic – sought for genocide – and Goran Hadzic, the 1991-1995 wartime leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia.

Serbia’s top war crime prosecutor said last week his office was investigating 13 people, including a former top-ranking security official, on suspicion of helping war crimes fugitives evade justice.

The U.N. war crimes tribunal plans to close by 2014, and the remaining cases have been handed to domestic courts. Serbia has already sentenced scores of war crime suspects.

A few things stand out. 

The repeated claim, unsupported by any evidence from the Serbian side, is that the prosecutions are motivated not by justice, but by a cynical desire to curry favour with the EU.  

Serbia was the only country to hand over a former head of state to The Hague. It has handed over all of its wanted war criminals. It has prosecuted “scores of war criminals” in domestic courts. 

Where is the equivalent zeal in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo? 

Kosovo in particular has a dire record of dealing with war criminals, probably because so many of them are currently in government. 

There is little more Serbia can do to get justice for the victims of Serb warcrimes. Serb victims of war crimes , however, will probably never see justice.

What’s worse the oppression of Serbs and other minorities continues in Kosovo. The criminals act with impunity because killing and beating Serbs still goes unpunished in Kosovo today, and few outside of the Serbian ghetto enclaves care about it. 

Via Serbia sentences 14 for 1991 war crime in Croatia | Reuters

Debt and the story of civilisation

Last Autumn, whilst rumbling across Belgrade on one of the city’s ancient trams, I listened to an interview on Tech Nation  with Anthropologist David Graeber , about his book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years“.

It is undoubtedly of of the best podcasts I heard last year.

The type of debt and financial structures that a civilisation adopts will dictate its fate.

Listen to the podcast for a quick but thorough introduction to the ideas in the book.

Here is an interview with the author on Naked Capitalism.

Bookforum also has fine review.

Neuroanthropology blog has a very details and brilliant overview.An excerpt, addressing one of the most interesting parts of Graeber’s thesis:

Graeber suggests that the ‘language of debt’ is a ‘moral’ one, not just an economic one. I would also add that we are told that debt default is an apocalyptic scenario, more dangerous than gutting social programs, disinvesting in infrastructure, making health care inaccessible, and bringing about all the slow moving catastrophes that often accompany austerity programs designed to increase states’ ability to pay their debts.

What makes Graeber’s analysis so interesting is that, because of his extensive historical research, he can actually trace how the current economic cosmology of debt arose, and point to periods when debt threatened to cause similar crises.  Specifically, he argues that the fluctuation historically back and forth between debt-backed or credit money (as we’ve essentially had since 1971) and bullion or commodity-backed money, is accompanied by larger shifts in patterns of warfare, slavery and debt bondage. Specifically, Graeber suggests that the expansion of debt is part and parcel of a virtual money system, one that has been dealt with before in human history. – Neuroanthropology blog

For another round up of links and videos, see  Book of the year: Debt (2011) by David Graeber

Coincidentally, David Brin recently blogged about Robert Wright’s new book “Nonzero” . In it he completely agrees with Graeber that the super rich are at war with the rest of us (also a view shared by Essential Intelligence ).

Go read one of the most important books in the past twenty years, Robert Wright’s Nonzero . Our entire Enlightenment Experiment has been about positive sum games. Open-competitive Economic Markets, Science, Democracy… these are all examples of systems set up to harness competition and produce positive sum results for all.
Alas, there are forces in human nature that always trend toward ruination of such systems. Winners tend not to want to compete as hard, next time, so they use their wealth and power to cheat! It is called oligarchy; the very thing that wrecked markets and democracy and science in all past cultures. Every single last one of them.

Except ours… but not without a struggle in every generation. Today, capitalism isn’t the enemy; it is the #1 victim of an ongoing attempted coup by oligarchs – who are only doing what humans are programmed to do, when tempted by feudal privilege.  If liberals would only read the “First Liberal” — Adam Smith — and realize this, they might drop both the left and right and stand up for the balanced market that emphasizes small business, startups and brash-competitive creativity, instead of monopoly, corporatism, state-paternalism and aristocracy.

Heck, if our ancestors could stand up and save the Enlightenment during their crises… so can we.