Ukraine and the Gell Mann Effect: the tragedy of delusion, bias, false assumptions and error-filled reporting

Gonzalo Lira, “Ukraine and the Gell Mann Effect” (13 May 2022)

In this video, Chilean-American vlogger Gonzalo Lira discusses the so-called Gell Mann effect in relation to mainstream news media reporting on Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine and Ukrainian politics and other affairs generally. Named by US novelist / film-maker Michael Crichton after US physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the Gell Mann effect describes the social psychological phenomenon of experts accepting and believing news articles on issues and topics outside their own areas of expertise even while being critical of the same news media outlets’ reporting on subjects within their own areas of expertise, because that reporting is full of errors, bias and unfounded assumptions. If you know that a media outlet publishes lies and propaganda in certain subject areas, because those subject areas are close to your own experience, why then would you accept that media outlet’s reporting on subject areas that you know little anything about? We make this mistake all the time about our news media and politicians: we know our politicians are often incompetent in areas of domestic policy – but why then, should we trust them on issues of foreign policy if so much of what they do in the domestic sphere (in, let’s say, spending on education, public health, social services, infrastructure investment) suggests they are not trustworthy at all?

Having explained what the Gell Mann effect is, Lira goes off on a different trajectory in which Western news media reporting on Russia’s campaign in Ukraine usually focuses on incidents such as the failed Ukrainian attack on Snake Island in early May : this was hailed as a success and a victory for the Ukrainians by Western news media when in fact it was a disaster for the Ukrainians who lost 60 experienced paratroopers in that incident – and not on the progress of the Russian campaign itself. The reality is that this Ukrainian attack on Snake Island, along with other Ukrainian actions, shows that, for all the bravery of individual Ukrainian soldiers, the Ukrainian military is losing badly and is being ground down steadily and inexorably by the Russians. Reports of Ukrainian units being abandoned by their commanders add to the general tale of woe of annihilation, disorganisation, demoralisation and the DAILY capture or killing of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers by the Russians.

What Lira is describing might be better called the fallacy of composition compounding a lie: inferring that what is true for one incident or one battle is true for the war as a whole, and basing policy on that inference. The tragedy is that hundreds of men are dying unnecessarily because their deluded government insists on throwing them into meat-grinder situations in order to demonstrate its “resilience” and “heroism”. Reports that the Russians are capturing hundreds of Ukrainian POWs, and most of those POWs being men in their 50s to 70s, might suggest that an entire generation of younger men of draft age has been or is being wiped out – but until Kiev finally admits surrender, and the fighting ends, we need to take care not to jump to conclusions ourselves.

That we want closure on issues, and cannot abide uncertainty, is something we should be aware of, as this tendency can be exploited by governments and makers of propaganda to give false reassurance – and to pressure the Ukrainians into resisting and losing even more soldiers.