How to avoid Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia

I’ve written about Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia here a couple of times. The first time was when I discovered it in The Economist. Another time was when I likened it to the Vodnoy Paradox, where people recommend deregulation in all sectors except their own.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia for a while now because I recently bought a (cheap – ?25 a week) subscription to the New York times). And they take the level of Sominism in their India coverage (no surprise since Somini Sengupta used to be their correspondent) another launch.

In fact, when I was mulling buying a subscription, I was explicitly warned about their India coverage.

And as I’ve read them for the last month and a half, this remains true. Their coverage of India is really shitty. It’s no different for many other global “liberal” newspapers such as the Guardian, or the Washington Post, or the Atlantic. The most baffling thing is that all these worthies is that they frequently employ writers of fiction as their vehicles of choice to interpret India for their readers (recently even the FT fell for this, asking the excellent-writer-but-insanely-political Arundhati Roy to write for them about India).

In any case, I’ve been wondering why this is the case. Why is it that these newspapers do such a shoddy job of covering India (or possibly any other emerging market) (I’m not saying they do a great job of covering their home markets either, since these newspapers have all become rather political, but at least there is some good coverage)?

My hypothesis about this is that they do a shitty job of covering India because they don’t care about the Indian reader, who contributes a microscopic minority of their revenues. That they can offer their zero-marginal-cost product for half of what Indian newspapers charge Indians for print subscriptions suggests that Indian readers don’t contribute significantly to their revenues.

Instead, what they have is large numbers of paying subscribers in their home markets who are (rightly) their primary audience. And because the people who are paying them and the people they are writing about are disjoint, there is no need to be authentic in their coverage. They can simply offer their readership the sort of slant and opinions they want without ever being held accountable.

It is similar in the case of Murray Gell-Mann. The science reporting can afford to be bad because scientists who really care about the research form only a tiny part of the subscriber base of the newspaper, and they possibly couldn’t care about holding the papers to account.

Now you can argue that each and every person is a “minority of one”, and so newspaper coverage ought to be uniformly shitty about all subjects. Except that some groups of readers are more similar to each other than they are to others, and such groups are likely to be “better taken care of” by the newspapers than all the other readership.

I don’t really know how this can be solved. For each newspaper, there will always be groups of core readership who might hold them to account, but there will be nobody holding them to account on vast sections of their coverage.

The only thing I can think of is the Times of India model – apart from being mass-market advertising funded, they have the habit of “putting ordinary people in the newspaper” through their tabloid supplements such as Bangalore Times (this was stated to me by someone who used  to work with the group). When you put ordinary people in the paper, these ordinary people will be more invested, and you better not write shit about them.

Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia and the Vodnoy Paradox

I’ve written about the Murray Gell-Mann amnesia here before. The idea there is that you trust whatever is printed in the newspaper, except for the section which is your domain of expertise. And despite the newspaper falling short in this section, you read the rest of the newspaper as if everything there is “correct”.

Yesterday I came across a similar idea when it comes to big government – what University of Nebraska economist Arthur M Diamond calls as a “Vodnoy Paradox” after his optomerist – it’s basically about big government advocates who advocate big government in all fields except for the one they’re expert in.

Government regulations sound plausible in areas where we know little and have thought less. But usually those who know an area well can tell us of the unexpected harmful consequences of seemingly plausible and well-intentioned regulations. As a result, the same person often advocates government regulations in areas in which they are ignorant and opposes them in areas where they have knowledge. I call this the “Vodnoy Paradox.” 

In the field they’re expert in they know that regulation doesn’t work, or is misguided, yet they support regulation in all other fields. Isn’t this just Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia in a different context? (quote via David Henderson of Econlog)

The Economist and the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

I’ve been a subscriber to the Economist for the last couple of years and quite enjoy reading that newspaper. There are weeks when I don’t manage to go through the week’s edition, but there are certain weeks when it forms a large part of my reading. I quite like the paper, and I subscribe to the daily “Espresso” issue on my mobile phone.

I have only one problem – a lot of their writing about India is biased, and filled with Sominisms. I mean their business pieces are pretty good, like this profile of Welspun. But their political coverage is generally biased by their correspondents’ dislike for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and hence not particularly objective.

I had recently carried a copy of the newspaper to read on my way to a quiz, where I met Baada. Baada was surprised that I read the newspaper, since it was so obviously biased in its coverage of Indian politics. “I agree that India coverage is biased”, I said, “but its worldwide coverage is really good. Hence I read it”.

Recently I came across the “Murray Gell-mann Amnesia effect“. It is named after the physicist, and claims that you will trust the rest of a newspaper even though you know that its coverage of your domain is shit. And thinking about it, I’m wondering if I should continue trusting The Economist.

Currently, I believe that the Economist’s coverage of Indian politics is shit, but I continue to read the newspaper for its other coverage. But what if everyone believes that the Economist’s coverage of their domain is inadequate? If that is the case, does it still make it a good paper? Should I use the fact of the Economist’s coverage of Indian business being better as a mitigating factor?

The problem is that there is no other paper that gives a nice concise view of what is happening in the world (FT is too voluminous given its frequency), and that makes the Economist good. But if their coverage is biased by their correspondents’ views in every country, it is not that trustworthy any more.

The only option I can think of is to continue reading the newspaper, but to “add salt to taste”. Every time I read a political story set in some country, I should keep in mind that the correspondent might be biased, and adjust my views accordingly. That way, I can consume the paper’s curation and analysis while not getting influenced by its inherent biases.