A journalist wrote a provocative headline about bike lanes causing rush hour congestion. It didn’t take long for it to come out that the headline was not representative of the research and that it was made up for shock and clicks.

While outright lies aren’t aren’t the norm in journalism — at least I hope so — reports about vehicles hitting cyclists are often manipulated. The first thing to report on is whether the cyclist had a high visibility vest on, was wearing a helmet and was generally an upstanding citizen. Everything is in the passive, the driver is never the agent.

Thus, when I talk to people who either don’t have extensive experience cycling or haven’t watched every episode of Not Just Bikes, I’m taken aback by how distorted their views are from reality. In other words, if your only source of information about cycling and road safety is mainstream journalism, you’re almost certainly misinformed.

I’m not positing a massive conspiracy by the anti-two-wheeled transport illuminati. Journalist are spread thin, clicks and hysteria get rewarded, and most people aren’t going to fact check a story about bike lanes.

The phenomenon of Gell-Man amnesia

But, if the newspapers are consistently wrong about bikes, why would they be right about anything else?

Turns out, I’m not the first person to wonder this and the phenomenon has a name: Gell-Man amnesia. Michael Crichton coined it:

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. 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 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.

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.

Question thyself

Time has a way of chipping away at what were once firmly-held narratives. Not long ago, I was in the Orange Man bad camp and happily gobbled up any bit of journalism that fed into that narrative.

Then the bombshell hit that the whole Russia thing was actually made up. To add insult to injury, the Hunter Biden emails were largely censored as a conspiracy theory, but they were later confirmed to be authentic. Of course, this is as of December 2021 — who knows what the future will bring.

The deeper you dig, the more mainstream media narratives keep falling apart. These aren’t trifling matters like bike lanes. The Iraq War was propelled by the media constantly repeating a false narrative. The account of the origins of Sars-Cov-2 looks awfully suspicious.

It’s become deeply troubling that even questioning narratives is under attack. The Science must not be questioned. Or rejecting the narrative means you’re a racist. In 2001, questioning the narrative meant you supported the terrorists. “You’re either with us or against us” was the mantra of the day; it could easily be said by The Science now. Incidentally, the security apparatus that was justified in the wake of 9/11 is still around, despite the narrative of the axis of evil crumbling.

There’s a certain lack of accountability for prestigious publications that consistently get things wrong. The New York Times and the Economist supported the Iraq War and played up the now discredited Russiagate story. These, along with the Atlantic and New Yorker are some of the best publications in the English language, yet they’re simply not reliable for current events.

Not epistemological nihilism

That’s not to say I reject the possibility of ever knowing anything. My approach is to be skeptical of narratives. If there’s a villain and a savior, watch out. If there’s an easy solution, steer clear of it. If questioning the narrative is itself out of the question, that narrative is almost certainly going to be proven wrong.

Time eventually disproves almost every individual bit of knowledge. Thinking of that, has made me much more hesitant to assume I’m correct and scream that others are wrong.

Books published years after the fact are illuminating. I still like long-form journalism that’s well researched and not rushed. Anything that doesn’t fit into the grand narrative and isn’t breaking news has a decent shot of standing the test of time awhile longer.