Vitaliy Katsenelson: Revisiting Gell-Mann Amnesia tells much about media’s credibility slide

Vitaliy Katsenelson: Revisiting Gell-Mann Amnesia tells much about media’s credibility slide

Discovering oneself unwittingly entangled in media narratives can be jarring. In a recent episode of “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver dissected the economics of food delivery, weaving a tale of exploitation. However, amid the laughter, the truth can get lost. Michael Crichton’s concept of Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia rings truer than ever—a phenomenon where the media’s credibility surpasses its accuracy. As the landscape evolves, navigating with scepticism and diligence becomes paramount.

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By Vitaliy Katsenelson*

This past Sunday, I received a text from a friend who told me he saw me on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO.

What I am about to say doesn’t apply just to John Oliver’s show, but to the media in general.

As much as I enjoyed seeing my mug on this show and gaining street cred with my kids, the episode highlights the reason why I stopped watching Oliver awhile back. I realized that if I kept watching, I would be intentionally suffering from Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia.

This is how Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park), who coined the term, described it in a speech in 2002:

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 refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann [he introduced the concept of quarks as the fundamental building blocks of the strongly interacting particles], 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 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. Papers are 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 stopped watching John Oliver’s show many years ago when he discussed business topics that I understood well. I realized that he settles on a narrative and then finds clips and edits them heavily to deliver his points, while making the audience laugh. However, the truth gets lost in the process. Oliver, like most media figures, is not really interested in the truth. There is very little intellectual honesty and no nuance in what they do. 

This particular show is a case in point. He goes after “big” food delivery companies. Throughout the show, he points out how little money restaurants, drivers, and food delivery companies make in this transaction – delivering a $12 burrito – and how difficult it is for all of them to profitably consummate the transaction. 

A villain is now needed to complete his narrative.  He goes after food delivery companies (which according to him are losing money) for not wanting to turn drivers into employees and pay them benefits and Social Security, and thus would lose even more money. He just argued that these companies are not making money, but once labeled “big,” he wants you to forget that and have them pay their drivers more. He says that because drivers are not employees but contractors, they get fleeced by “big” companies. The reality is that the only people who want the drivers to be employees are politicians (who never have had a real job in their lives) and maybe comedy show hosts, drivers don’t want to be employees.

My son Jonah was a DoorDash driver during college. My favorite story is when Jonah and his girlfriend Molly went to dinner. There was a 40-minute wait at the restaurant. They put their name on the list and then Jonah opened the DoorDash app, saw there was a great demand for drivers, and asked Molly, “Do you want to do a few Door Dashes with me? It’ll pay for dinner.” Molly agreed. It’s very difficult to put a dollar value on this flexibility. 

This show is full of untruths, and I inadvertently appear right in the middle of it. As I mentioned, Oliver argues that food delivery companies don’t make money. This used to be the case, but it is not anymore. They have turned profitable over the last few years. Oliver used a clip from the interview I gave to PBS in 2020 (which also quotes Uber Eats’ CEO), right in the middle of the pandemic. At the time, these businesses – which, to their surprise, had seen a huge jump in demand – were bleeding money. That is not the case today. But by using a four-year-old clip he warps the truth – not that you would know that. I really had to squint for a second at the top-left corner to notice the 2020 time stamp. I guarantee most people missed this detail. 

Shockingly, Crichton pointed out the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect almost a quarter-century ago and things have gotten a lot worse. Unfortunately, today we have to bring along a very large salt shaker and our own ability to do research when we consume media. 

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Vitaliy Katsenelson*  is the CEO at IMA, a value investing firm in Denver.

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