Author of The Half-Life Of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date
Is the overturn of knowledge speeding up—or slowing down? Are we even capable of processing all of the new facts cropping up every day? One thing is certain, says applied mathematician and network scientist Samuel Arbesman: facts are not, for the most part, set in stone. Most of the facts that we know to be true are constantly changing and evolving. A Senior Scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, Arbesman has spent years researching this—ahem—fact, and has made it his life's work to guide others in the process of factual evolution. “Facts change in regular and mathematically understandable ways. And only by knowing the pattern of our knowledge's evolution can we be better prepared for its change.”
Prior to joining the Kauffman Foundation, Arbesman was a research fellow in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, where he used network science and applied mathematics to study innovation, scientific discovery, and prosocial behavior. He completed a PhD in computational biology at Cornell University in 2008, and earned a BA in computer science and biology at Brandeis University in 2004.
The Half-Life of Facts
Facts change all the time. The age at which women should get a mammogram has increased. Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly while the healthiness of carbs and fat seems to be in constant flux. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe, that Pluto was a planet, and that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur. What we know about the world is constantly changing.
Samuel Arbesman is an expert in scientometrics, literally the science of science: how we know what we know. It turns out that knowledge in most fields evolves in systematic and predictable ways, and understanding that evolution can be enormously powerful. For instance, knowing how different branches of medicine overturn their bodies of knowledge can improve the way we train (and retrain) physicians. Based on his book, The Half-life of Facts, Arbesman offers fascinating examples from fields as diverse as technology and literature, and helps us find new ways to measure the world while accepting the limits of how much we can know with certainty. “If we can understand the underlying order and patterns to how facts change, we can better handle all of the uncertainty that's around us.”
Navigating Facts in the Corporate World
Contrary to popular belief, there are very few facts in life that are totally set in stone. There are many facts that we deem totally irrefutable—and yet, new research suggests that they too might be subject to change. How do we adapt, to all this rapid change around us, and especially in the corporate world? Enter Samuel Arbesman, and his Informational Index Funds. In our own field and specialty, there are ways to keep abreast of what's going on: which facts still ring true, and which do not. But while we're doing that, other fields (and the important information they possess) can sometimes fall by the wayside. Arbesman shares practical methods to gaining access to and sharing information, that will lead to an inevitable strengthening of our corporations. As our world grows and knowledge expands, it becomes increasingly important to be aware of how facts change, and why. With confidence and ease, Arbesman acts as a guide for his audience members: he teaches them how to spot a changing fact, which facts to ignore and when to dig a little deeper. “Even though knowledge changes, the astounding thing is that it changes in a regular manner; facts have a half-life and obey mathematical rules. Once we recognize this, we'll be ready to live [and prosper] in the rapidly changing world around us.”
The Half-life Of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date
New insights from the science of science.
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.
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