Notes on reading

Wessex, Mercia, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

Penda's Fen

In a speech given in 2002, Michael Crichton, of Jurassic Park fame, coined the term, ‘Gell-Mann Amnesia effect’. He explained it as follows:

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, 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. 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.

I know those feelings of exasperation and amusement well. I still roll my eyes when I recall the prominent Times journalist referring, in one of his columns, to Albert Camus as ‘the nihilist philosopher’. Clearly, if he’d even bothered to read Camus — itself a moot point — he hadn’t understood him.

But it’s not just the newspapers. I bought the BFI DVD of David Rudkin’s 1974 TV play Penda’s Fen not long ago. As an aside, if you haven’t heard of it, it’s something of a cult film among the folk-horror/English-eerie crowd. I have to say, I found it a disappointment — didactic, disjointed, and replete with the stiffest of acting.

Anyway, the link to the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is this. After I’d watched the film, I started reading the DVD’s accompanying booklet. I was hoping to understand just why Penda’s Fen is so highly regarded and what it was I was missing. There’s always a sense of emotional and intellectual insecurity when a work of art that’s been praised to the skies fails to move or engage you. But in the first part of the elucidatory essay, written, I can only assume, by a credentialed intellectual, the play’s setting was given as the West Country.

In fact, the setting is Worcestershire, which is in the West Midlands. I stopped reading at that point. If the bloke couldn’t get a simple geographic detail right then I wasn’t interested in his opinions on what Penda’s Fen was all about. It may seem a trivial point, but if a critic is elucidating a version of England and Englishness, it behoves him to nail the place — and, as importantly, the spirit of the place. Mercia and Wessex are not the same. Will I remember that exasperation the next time I read a BFI booklet? Probably not. The Gell-Mann Amnesia effect will have kicked in by then.

[Still image from Penda’s Fen © BBC.]