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The Dangers of Out Of Date Facts: Science Speaker Samuel Arbesman
Science | November 06, 2012

The Dangers of Out Of Date Facts: Science Speaker Samuel Arbesman

"We need to constantly reeducate ourselves, avoid memorization, and start looking up facts to make sure that we have the most updated knowledge," science speaker Samuel Arbesman advises in a blog post for the Harvard Business Review. "We need to incorporate an informational humility into our lives. Otherwise, we'll be stuck selling buggy whips to car owners. Or making maps that show the wrong number of planets."

Thanks to Arbesman's new book, The Half-Life of Facts, we now know that everything we have held to be empirically true can, and probably will, change. In his recent blog post, however, the applied mathematician and network scientist expands on that revelation by emphasizing the ramifications of not keeping up to date with your facts. "While it's okay to quote some half-remembered fact you read in a magazine years ago at a party," Arbesman writes, "using it as a basis for a decision can have profound consequences." He uses an example of someone telling a party guest that there are 4 billion people on the planet, when in fact, there now are over 7 billion. For the sake of that particular discussion the misinformation doesn't really matter that much. However, if that person were using that fact to make a decision there would be a problem, Arbesman warns.  By approaching education the same way that medical students do—by admitting that a lot of what they learn will be obsolete within several years—we can make better and more accurate decisions.

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 also regularly contributes to media outlets such as The Atlantic and The New York Times. His talks shatter our preconceptions of what we thought we knew, giving audiences practical advice on how to adapt and thrive in a world where facts are constantly in flux.
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