Gell-Mann Amnesia on Pilestræde


I’ve talked about the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect before (here, for example), but allow me to restate Michael Crichton’s elegant observation so we all have it top of mind:

The Gell-Mann Amnesia effect describes the phenomenon of reading an article about a subject you know quite well and realizing it’s got everything wrong—then continuing to read the same publication on the assumption that what you’re reading on other subjects is accurate and reliable. You forget that you just observed the publication couldn’t be trusted: that’s the amnesia.

Now that we’re all reacquainted with this definition, let’s take a look at a Sunday article from Berlingske:

Danish Omnicron numbers create joy abroad—SSI is now also more optimistic
Signe Stoumann Fosgrau,, Dec 26

Fosgrau begins her article with a headline from the Washington Post: “Denmark sees early signs that dire omicron surge can be avoided.”

I won’t include a link to the article in the Post because it’s behind a paywall (and it’s the WaPo), but I should note that I’ve quoted the actual English version of the headline as it appears in the WaPo: Fosgrau cites it in Danish: Danmark ser tidlige tegn på, at omikronstigning kand undgås (“Denmark sees early signs that the omikron increase can be avoided”), which lacks a little of the Post’s… zest.

A “dire surge” is, after all, much more sensational than a mere “increase.”

But let’s not quibble over translations and dropped adjectives. Let’s get back to the article itself.

“This is the headline in the Washington Post,” Fosgrau writes,

…which has, like other foreign media, persistently described Danish infection and hospitalization figures as creating a basis for “cautious optimism” in relation to the fact that countries with high vaccination support may mitigate the violent omicron wave.

She notes that the Post emphasizes our rapid roll-out of a third jab as “creating hope that Denmark can avoid the violent hospitalization figures that the country has preprared for.”

She cites the academic director of Statens Serum Institut (SSI), one Tyra Grove Krause, as having told the Post that “It’s too early to relax, but it’s encouraging that we’re not following the worst possible scenario.”

Do you live in Denmark? Do you know someone who does? Do you follow Danish media, and do you ever watch or listen to government press conferences on the pandemic?

If so, you may be scratching your head at this point.

The Washington Post says Denmark is “creating a basis for cautious optimism,” and “creating hope.” And a spokesperson for SSI is “encouraged” that “we’re not following the worst possible scenario.”

Fosgrau apparently anticipates your reaction, and we move directly to a section subtitled “Different in the Danish media.”

However, the narrative about the Danish infection development being positive and something that can create “cautious optimism” differs from what the Danish media describe.

As one of the first European countries to be seriously affected by an explosive surge with the omicron variant, the focus among Danish media has been mainly on high infection rates and on the uncertainty in relation to whether hospitalization rates would increase to such an extent that the health care system would be congested.

That’s one way of putting it.

Another way would be: “The Danish media have been consumed with hair-on-fire hysteria over a variant that has never given any sign of being anywhere near as serious a health threat as even a seasonal flu.”

As I think I mentioned in the week before the Christmas break, I was having a hard time finding articles about America in the Danish media largely because all the major media—DR, Berlingske, Politiken, Jyllands-Posten, TV2 News, etc—seemed to be focused almost exclusively on the Omikron surge in Denmark and how important it was to ruin our holidays on its behalf. It was so bad that Berlingske actually ran an article about a 30-year-old guy who had decided to have a normal Christmas. That was actual news:

Daniel refuses to follow corona guidelines: “I’m celebrating Christmas the way I want to.
Philip Sune Dam,, Dec 23

That article noted, by the way, that “According to the HOPE-Project, roughly 60% of Danes are ‘highly’ or ‘somewhat’ worried about the coronavirus’s consequences for themselves or their families.” The inferences seems to be that Daniel is inappropriately carefree.

Let us all bow our heads in a moment of prayer or silent meditation for poor misguided Daniel.

And maybe take an additional moment to wonder whether Berlingske will run a follow-up to let us know how many relatives Daniel killed with his holiday selfishness… or, indeed, whether Daniel himself has perished along with all the other millions of Danes being swept away by this apocalyptic plague of sniffles, coughs, and mild headaches.

(I don’t know anything about the HOPE-Project, but it seems to be something out of Aarhus University’s School of Business and Social Sciences: their homepage is headed “HOPE – How Democracies Cope with COVID19 A Data-Driven Approach,” and is a curious blend of English and Danish.)

Into what depths of cultural insanity have we sunk when a major newspaper believes it’s newsworthy that a healthy young man who’s been triple-vaccinated intends to celebrate a normal Christmas with his family?

Can you imagine reading such a headline in 2019?

The Danish media have been bonkers about the Dread Variant Omikron.

And the Washington Post is telling Americans how hopeful and encouraging the Danish example is.

In some ways the disconnect between the WaPo and the Danish Media is a simple matter of the glass being half-full or half-empty: the Danish media see wildly surging case counts and describe the glass as half-empty. The WaPo sees very low hospitalization rates and describes the glass as half-full.

Tomato, tomahto.

Fosgrau does a pretty good job of parsing and explaining the differences between these points of view, and even clarifies that the idea implicit in the WaPo headline—that a surge in Omicron cases can be avoided—is idiocy.

But I want to go back to her one key line: “the (Post’s) narrative… differs from what the Danish media describe.”

The Washington Post’s narrative frequently differs from what reality describes, but that never stopped Berlingske from passing along their stories as gospel.

Will this episode give Fosgrau or her editors on Pilestræde pause the next time they’re inclined to pass WaPo reporting on to their own readers unchecked?

Of course not.

And that’s the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect in action.