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Why <em>The Half-Life Of Facts</em> Is Making Us Smarter: Samuel Arbesman
Science | April 12, 2013

Why The Half-Life Of Facts Is Making Us Smarter: Samuel Arbesman

"The metaphor of the half-life encapsulates this," science speaker Samuel Arbesman tells the Huffington Post, "we can't predict when a single radioactive atom is going to decay, but when you get a lot of atoms together, you can chart out a clear curve of decay, and even capture this in a single number: the half-life." In his popular book, The Half Life of Facts, the network scientist applies this principle of the half-life to all empirical data. "I can't predict the discovery that will occur next, or which fact will be overturned in a week," he explains, "but when looked at as a whole, knowledge obeys an order. And this order can be understood in the language of mathematics." This is an important idea, he explains, because it helps to create order in a world where knowledge and factual information is constantly being overturned.

As he says in the interview, one of his goals is to dispel the myth that the half-life of facts suggests we live in a state of intellectual flux—where we constantly don't know anything. As Arbesman discussed in a piece on recently, this is one of the most misguided interpretations of his thesis. Just because we continuously find new information that overturns our previous beliefs (making them false) doesn't mean that we don't know anything at all. "When certain things we thought were true are overturned, we don’t simply return to our previous state of ignorance," he explained in the post. "We have learned something through this process, and come closer to the truth of the world around us." A half-life of facts is exciting, more than threatening, because it means we are expanding our knowledge and ultimately gaining a better understanding of our world.

Arbesman is a Senior Scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. He is also a contributor to Wired. His book, The Half-life of Facts, was named as "easily one of the best books of the year on science," by Bloomberg and has ignited a great deal of discussion in scientific and non-scientific circles alike. He is adept at bringing his research to the masses, explaining scientific theory with ease in his engaging keynotes. Arbesman teaches us that what we learn tomorrow may not be the same as what we're taught today—but these rapid changes are an exciting route to greater discovery.
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