The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

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Overview

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 ...

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The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Absorbing and approachable treatise on the nature of facts: what they are, how and why they change and how they sometimes don't (despite being wrong). Facts matter. But when they change--as they seem today to do with alarming frequency, we begin to lose that control. In his debut, Arbesman, a research fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, advises us not to worry: While we can't stop facts from changing, we can recognize that what we know "changes in understandable and systematic ways." Since it is often surprisingly predictable, we can get a handle on change. "Facts, in the aggregate," he writes, "have half-lives: We can measure the amount of time for half of a subject's knowledge to be overturned." With this, he introduces "scientometrics," the science of science. With scientometrics, we can measure the exponential growth of facts, how long it will take, exponentially, for knowledge in any field to be disproved--say, 45 years for medical knowledge. We can understand predictably how the spread of knowledge (even incorrect knowledge) occurs, and we can understand that those abrupt disconcerting changes that seem to stand the world on its head aren't really all that surprising. Some readers may lose interest as Arbesman discusses such esoteric topics as logistic curves, linked S-curve theory, semantic and associative data processing and actuarial escape velocity. But like a good college professor, Arbesman's enthusiasm and humor maintains our interest in subjects many readers may not have encountered before. Does what popular science should do--both engages and entertains.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591844723
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/27/2012
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,469,857
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Samuel Arbesman is an applied mathematician and network scientist. He is a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, New Scientist, and The Boston Globe. He lives in Kansas City with his wife.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 The Half-life of Facts 1

Chapter 2 The Pace of Discovery 9

Chapter 3 The Asymptote of Truth 26

Chapter 4 Moore's Law of Everything 40

Chapter 5 The Spread of Facts 66

Chapter 6 Hidden Knowledge 96

Chapter 7 Fact Phase Transitions 121

Chapter 8 Mount Everest and the Discovery of Error 140

Chapter 9 The Human Side of Facts 171

Chapter 10 At the Edge of What We Know 200

Acknowledgments 211

Notes 215

Index 235

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2012

    Good for non-science readers

    This book had about enough information for ten or fifteen pages, with the rest examples and filler. I would highly recommend this to someone who reads very few science books as a good meta-introduction to the field, but I think the content is highly intuitive to people who have experience with popular science literature or science work in general.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2012

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    Posted October 15, 2014

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