The Economist

While discussing news summary sites, Henry Dampier mentioned The Economist:

I grew up reading the Economist from maybe around age 12 to my early 20s. I stopped because they’re filthy rotten Commies who only give people the illusion of being well-informed.

Which reminded me of my own experiences reading The Economist. The publication has a reverential following among the intelligentsia. As an aquaintance said in a forum post, “It’s great to read a magazine that has regular news about Africa.”

I sampled a few issues. The Economist did indeed have regular features about Africa. It also had news about America. Often, the magazine would take up a hectoring tone. (Mocked ably by Nick Land as “Musty”: “To Beat ISIS, the Arab World Must Promote Political and Religious Reforms”, Rule Jebreal tells us.)

For example, in an article on the 2010 midterm elections, we were told that Republicans must embrace climate change — and I think one or two other progressive talking points. Of course the Republicans did not want or need to adopt the left wing of the Democratic party platform in order to gain congressional seats. This made me wonder if the Economist’s news about Africa was any more reliable than the news about America.

This is not an original concept. It has a name: The Gell-Mann Amnesia effect, although some or most of the credit belongs to the late author Michael Crichton. It is Crichton, not Gell-Man, whom I quote:

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.

A Neoreactionary hears “only possible explanation” and shouts: “Challenge accepted!” There is another, possible, explanation for our undeserved respect for media. It is powerful. When you turn the page and read about Palestine, you are not learning about actual events in the Middle East. You are learning what powerful and influential people believe about the Middle East. Isn’t it helpful to know what they think?

(And if their facts are a little off, so what? The relevance of Palestine to you, and your capacity to influence events there, are close enough to zero.)

The Economist serves as both an elite signalling mechanism, and a convenient coordination device to allow alignment with informed opinion. (The copies of the Economist that I read had no advertisements … other than help wanted positions for various governments and NGOS.)

To be sure, the magazine does report the news. Just remember that this function is secondary in importance, and that no business voluntarily discomfits its customers.