It's all speculative

January 04, 2010 By: erik Category: Complaining, Media, Musings, Stuff I Found 125 views

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Today I stumbled on this awesome speech written and given by Michael Crichton back in 2002 about speculation, and how the media – which he defines as movies, television, internet, books, newspapers, and magazines – is, to a large extent, a gurgling blob of useless drivel. It’s a shame that he probably didn’t get to watch much of the farcical climax of vacuous speculation that was the 2008 US presidential election, as he died on the day Obama got elected. My favorite part of the article is how he talks about the fallacy that we all commit (a recent favorite topic of mine) when we read the newspaper, or receive information from any news source for that matter.

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.

  • cm25

    I could not agree more. Being an attorney I know how inaccurate the media is when reporting legal issues, this led me to realize that they are likely inaccurate about everything else they report.

    I think a lot of the problem is article length. The media simply refuses to take the time to properly explain and report stories in context. Instead they prefer scary headlines that aren’t accurate.

  • I just skimmed the speech, but I see that Crichton used the speech as an opportunity to argue that climate change equals the Y2K scare. It’s almost like he’s offering the reader some formative testing:
    — Lesson: “beware vacuous nonsense!”
    — Test: “did you catch that the lesson was full of vacuous nonsense? Good.”
    Either that or Crichton’s a boob.

    • He specifically says that he tries – ironically, I guess – his best in the speech to speculate and not give any facts.

      The climate change/Y2K part was the weakest section of the speech by far.

  • I was thinking of this post this morning while listening to NPR, and what I’d seen in Crichton’s speech bothered me enough to cause me to return to it – and read it – this morning. I like it even less now. He has a serious baby-with-the-bathwater problem.
    Most of the first half of the speech is dedicated to laying out the proposition that “nobody knows the future”, which, ok. Fair enough. But then we’re asked to leap from there to “speculation is really worthless”. I don’t like that at all. My species is heavily invested in the importance of speculation. It’s probably safe to say that our super deluxe prefrontal cortex has played in indispensable role in our conquest and plunder the planet. While the shots Crichton takes against the punditocracy are justified, none of them prove that speculation is worthless.

    (I like how he doesn’t make that leap explicit, but rather finishes his “nobody knows the future” argument and launches into “If speculation is really worthless, why is there so much of it?” It’s not that Crichton is sloppy and doesn’t take the time to neatly tie up a solid conclusion based on his fundamental premises. He leaves the loose ends hanging and gingerly steps over the fact that they don’t add up to the conclusion that he needs for the rest of his speech to make sense. Eliding that one of your major premises is based on a shaky assumption is a huckster’s tactic, and should set off alarm bells.)

    I share Crichton’s disregard for the Sunday morning talk show pundits. But that doesn’t mean that it’s at all unreasonable for me to turn to people who know more about a topic than I do to help me understand what developments in that area mean. I don’t think the MSNBC commentators have any better idea than I do why the stock markets go up and down. But I have come to accept, for example, that Nate Silver knows more about polling methodology than I do, and I have come to trust his analysis (even the speculative parts). A high error rate seems inescapable in the first draft of history, but that doesn’t make the endeavor pointless, any more than a slew of ridiculous strutting peacocks (“RSPs”) on the TV makes everyone on TV an RSP.

    Moreover, speculation is an essential part of how science is done. Crichton tries to draw a line between real science and purely speculative stuff. But look at what he puts on the purely speculative side: “[t]he nature of consciousness, the workings of the brain, the origin of aggression, the origin of language, the origin of life on earth, SETI and life on other worlds”. Dude, seriously? And he was writing this in 2002, right? Not 1920. Most of these (all of them?) are legitimate areas of scientific inquiry, and the fact that the first work in these fields was driven by speculation isn’t an indictment of all of the following work. That’s completely backwards. The fact that the first work in these fields – probably in every scientific field – was driven by speculation should make clear the essential role that speculation about the unknown is an essential step toward discovery.

    I am seeing in Crichton’s screed something like correspondence bias. He sees RSPs in every field of media and leaps to the conclusion that all of media is an RSP show. But of course it isn’t. RSPs are a probably-unavoidable by-product of the commercialization of information distribution channels. Maybe Crichton wishes the media could be free of the commercial forces that create RSPs. Maybe that’s why his “life feels fresher” when he pretends the media doesn’t exist. (What is this, a douche commercial?) He ends up coming off like Holden Caulfield, railing against the phonies and trying to keep us from running off the cliff of rampant speculation.

    But there’s no cliff. Just as always, speculation leads to errors, and it leads to progress. Just as always, listening to “experts” without your thinking cap on is a bad idea. And Crichton gives us no compelling reason to believe that RSPs pose any greater threat to our civilization than they ever have.

    I know this is already a long, long comment, but I wanted to say something about falsus in uno, the “legal doctrine” that Crichton refers to in his speech. For one thing, it’s one of many old tropes of the profession that has fallen into disrepute in these more enlightened times. Here’s a 2nd Circuit case from 2000 (U.S. v. James, 239 F.3d 120) addressing the subject. In that case, one party was appealing a trial judge’s refusal to instruct the jury that the testimony of a witness who lies about one thing should be disregarded in its entirety. When a confused juror asked “[i]f a juror believed that a witness lied on the witness stand, should the juror ignore the entire testimony from that witness?”, the trial judge’s response would also have been a good response to someone wondering whether rampant speculation was a reason to completely write off our media establishment.

    Well, ladies and gentlemen, that is really for the juror. And ultimately for the jury, to decide. That’s not a question we decide. That’s a question you individually as jurors and collectively as a jury decide. After considering all the evidence you decide on the basis of what you heard whether to believe in whole or in part the testimony of a particular witness. I really can’t, that’s your duty, that’s your authority, and I think that’s the best way to handle that.

    So now I need to go read your post on confirmation bias. Because I came into this thinking that Crichton was a boob, and I leave even more convinced that Crichton is a boob. One other thought: falsus in uno

    • Nice longer-than-original-post comment. I agree that his point is poorly and sloppily argued.

      As with most arguments, the “speculation is worthless” one comes down to what we mean by speculation, and where you put the threshold for “how much evidence do you need before your prediction ceases to be speculation?”.

      Is forming a testable scientific hypothesis before doing an experiment speculating? I would say no, you would say yes. Is a caveman who decides it would be better if he didn’t kick a sleeping bear speculating?

      I’m glad the falsus in uno thing “has fallen into disrepute”, as it’s horribly illogical as an all-encompassing rule. But I still like his amnesia theory, and agree that it’s very easy to give journalists more trust than they deserve.

      The main message of the speech, as I understood it, was to relax and not worry so much about what you hear the media forecasting, especially the scary stuff (which is most of it), because they’re almost always wrong.

  • Thanks; good points all. I think I have Crichton pegged right on what he means by speculation, based on his odd list of scientific fields that aren’t to be taken seriously.