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Be Open To Change: Samuel Arbesman In <em>The Economist</em>
Science | November 28, 2012

Be Open To Change: Samuel Arbesman In The Economist

"We are coming a lot closer to a true understanding of the world; we know a lot more about the universe than we did even just a few decades ago," Samuel Arbesman tells The Economist. "It is not the case that just because knowledge is constantly being overturned we do not know anything. But too often, we fail to acknowledge change." Acknowledging these changes is something that he explains in his highly talked-about book, The Half-Life of Facts. Arbesman explains that facts are constantly changing, but those changes are positive—so long as we understand how to accept and monitor the way that facts are overturned. Since knowledge is rapidly changing, he explains, it means that science is coming up with new ideas and discovering more about the world. What Arbesman's work in the field of scientometrics does is help us learn which facts change the fastest, and how we can keep up with those changes.

"One thing we have seen is that the social sciences have a much faster rate of decay than the physical sciences," he says, "because in the social sciences there is a lot more 'noise' at the experimental level." When you are dealing with parabolas, for example, you can research with few outside distractions influencing your data. However, he says that dealing with people is much messier as humans respond to a variety of factors, which means that the results tend to be less streamlined—thus making them more easily overturned in the future. He also says that facts in medicine tend to decay far faster than facts in mathematics because, once again, dealing with humans tends to have more uncontrollable variables.

Understanding first that knowledge changes, and then having an idea of how it changes and how fast, is important to knowing how to navigate a rapidly evolving world. "We constantly have to make an effort to explore the world anew," Arbesman advises, and "recognise that most of the stuff [we] learned when [we] were younger is not at the cutting edge." When he's not researching at the Kauffman Foundation or studying scientometrics, Arbesman is a contributor to Wired.com, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Boston Globe. In his writing and on the stage the scientist speaks to the importance of understanding how empirical facts are overturned so that you may not only be prepared for new changes, but be able to anticipate them and stay one step ahead.
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