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Facts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that Pluto was a planet. For decades, we were convinced that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur. In short, what we know about the world is constantly changing. But it turns out there’s an order to the state of knowledge, an explanation for how we know what we know.
Samuel Arbesman is an expert in the field of scientometrics - literally the science of science. Knowledge in most fields evolves systematically and predictably, and this evolution unfolds in a fascinating way that can have a powerful impact on our lives. Doctors with a rough idea of when their knowledge is likely to expire can be better equipped to keep up with the latest research. Companies and governments that understand how long new discoveries take to develop can improve decisions about allocating resources. And by tracing how and when language changes, each of us can better bridge generational gaps in slang and dialect. Just as we know that a chunk of uranium can break down in a measurable amount of time - a radioactive half-life - so too any given field’s change in knowledge can be measured concretely.
We can know when facts in aggregate are obsolete, the rate at which new facts are created, and even how facts spread.
Arbesman takes us through a wide variety of fields, including those that change quickly, over the course of a few years, or over the span of centuries. He shows that much of what we know consists of “mesofacts” - facts that change at a middle timescale, often over a single human lifetime. Throughout, he offers intriguing examples about the face of knowledge: what English majors can learn from a statistical analysis of The Canterbury Tales, why it’s so hard to measure a mountain, and why so many parents still tell kids to eat their spinach because it’s rich in iron. The Half-life of Facts is a riveting journey into the counterintuitive fabric of knowledge. It can help us find new ways to measure the world while accepting the limits of how much we can know with certainty.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Gary on 02-14-13
Our understanding changes with our set of facts
Easy to follow book on the changing nature of facts and how they help make our current foundation for science. He illustrates his points by many great vignettes such as why even today spinach is falsely believed to contain a lot of iron. That story alone makes the book worth a listen.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
By Davin V. Jones on 12-03-12
Author misrepresents what an actual 'fact' is.
What did you like best about The Half-life of Facts? What did you like least?
The overall story was ok and some really interesting insights were made. However, the author frequently conflates facts with our understanding of facts. He doesn't distinguish between temporal facts (like the current tallest building) with absolute facts (atomic properties). Also, his claim that facts change is flat out wrong. Facts don't change - that is what makes them 'facts'. Our understanding of what the facts are about something may alter or change as we learn more about things, but the facts are always the same. Even the temporal ones are constant, only requiring an extra dimension to quantify it.
One example of the misused logic the author uses is the magnetic properties of iron. He states that the magnetic properties changed over time as we became more capable of purifying the iron to measure it magnetic properties. This is wrong. The magnetic properties of iron never changed one bit. Our ability to measure the properties changed. The fact remained constant, our understanding of the fact improved.
While it seems that the author may actually understand these nuances, as some of the points he makes are very good and require this basic understanding; that he does not articulate this key difference can leave other readers with the wrong impression of what a fact is. This is what causes confusion when the general public argues against scientific knowledge (e.g. climate change or evolution) trying to claim that science is always wrong and our facts keep changing. By not distinguishing the difference, the author is reinforcing this perception.
11 of 13 people found this review helpful