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

by Samuel Arbesman
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 27, 2012 159184472X 978-1591844723 0
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

From Booklist

There are facts, and then there are facts. We expect some facts to be fluid—the population of Earth, for example—but, as it turns out, we probably shouldn’t expect anything we know to remain static. Things that feel like unalterable truths, like the number of chromosomes in human cells (which was 48, until somebody noticed it wasn’t), can suddenly shift. The author, an applied mathematician, explores the nature of knowledge: why it changes, how it changes, and why this is so vital for scientific exploration. Knowledge, like life itself, evolves; science regularly revises its truths to include new discoveries. The book is also a history of a field many readers might never have heard of: scientometrics, “the science of science,” a way of quantifying the growth of ideas. The author shows, too, how the principles of scientometrics can be applied to other fields, examination of various surviving copies of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, for instance, allowing researchers to track back to Chaucer’s own original version. Fascinating, engagingly written, and just mind-bending enough to spur readers to revisit their own mental catalogs of knowledge. --David Pitt


"Delightfully nerdy."
—David A. Shaywitz, The Wall Street Journal

The Half-Life of Facts is easily one of the best books of the year on science. It would be a lovely irony were it to prove one of the best books on politics, too.”
—Stephen L. Carter, Bloomberg

“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…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.’… 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…like a good college professor, Arbesman’s enthusiasm and humor maintains our interest in subjects many readers may not have encountered before…[The Half-Life of Facts] does what popular science should do—both engages and entertains.”
Kirkus Reviews

“How many chromosomes do we have? How high is Mount Everest? Is spinach as good for you as Popeye thought—and what scientific blunder led him to think so in the first place? The Half-life of Facts is fun and fascinating, filled with wide-ranging stories and subtle insights about how facts are born, dance their dance, and die. In today’s world, where knowledge often changes faster than we do, Samuel Arbesman’s new book is essential reading.”
—Steven Strogatz, professor of mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of X
“What does it mean to live in a world drowning in facts? Consider The Half-life of Facts the new go-to book on the evolution of science and technology.”
—Tyler Cowen, professor of economics, George Mason University, and author of An Economist Gets Lunch
The Half-life of Facts is a rollicking intellectual journey. Samuel Arbesman shares his extensive knowledge with infectious enthusiasm and entertaining prose. Even if the facts around us are ever changing, the lessons and fun in this book will have a very long half-life!”
—Michael J. Mauboussin, chief investment strategist, Legg Mason Capital Management, and author of The Success Equation
The Half-life of Facts teaches you that it is possible, in fact, to drink from a fire­hose. Samuel Arbesman, an extremely creative scientist and storyteller, explores the paradox that knowledge is tentative in particularly consistent ways. In his ca­pable hands, we learn about everything from how medieval manuscripts resemble genetic code to what bacteria and computer chips have in common. This book un­ravels the mystery of how we come to know the truth—and how long we can be certain about it.”
—Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, coauthor of Connected

“Facts fall apart, some famously so. Brontosaurus is not a real dinosaur species; Pluto is not a planet. When you look at them en masse, patterns emerge: Facts die, and are born, at specific, predictable rates. These rates are the subject of applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman’s engaging, insightful jaunt across the backstage of scientific knowledge. Packed with interesting tidbits—for instance, more than a third of mammals thought to have gone extinct in the last 500 years have since reappeared—the book explains how facts spread and change over time. It also explores how today’s data-soaked reality has yielded high-throughput, automated ways to produce new truths, like algorithms that discover connections between genes and disease.”
—Veronique Greenwood, Discover magazine

“Knowledge shifts over time, explains Sam Arbesman in The Half-Life of Facts, and it does so in predictable ways. The book takes us on a whirlwind tour of emerging fields of scientometrics, and undertakes a broader exploration of metaknowledge. Arbesman details how researchers beginning to focus the big-data lens back on science itself are uncovering quantitative laws and regulari­ties in the way that scientific knowledge is constructed and modified over time….Arbesman is a delight­ful guide to the territory, patently in love with this emerging field. He is also a skilled storyteller, and his wide-eyed reporting invigorates material that could have been dry and academic.”
Carl Bergstrom, Nature magazine

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Current Hardcover (September 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159184472X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591844723
  • Product Dimensions: 2.4 x 3.6 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,343 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Samuel Arbesman is an applied mathematician and network scientist. He is a Senior Scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. In addition, he writes for popular audiences as a contributor to Wired, and his essays about math and science have appeared in such places as the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Ideas section of the Boston Globe. Arbesman's first book, "The Half-Life of Facts," is about how knowledge changes over time.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
53 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshing October 11, 2012
This is a review intended for the experienced popular science reader. As someone who is fairly widely read in the popular science literature, I found this book to be refreshing. Let me explain. A problem I've had with many popular science books is that they tend to all repeat the tired "greatest hits" of science and math stories, even if they're only ever so slightly related, in a manner that makes them tired. For example, when Graph Theory 1736-1936 brings up the 'Seven Bridges of Königsberg', this is relevant; when Fermat's Enigma brings it up, Singh is stretching the connection simply because it's a good story. But for frequent readers of popular science writing, it feels more like a disservice. For the well read fan of popular science, the seven bridges, the Monty Hall problem, and the birthday paradox are well known.

And so, I was delighted to find Arbesman's book genuinely refreshing. He omits any discussion of Königsberg and the birthday paradox, which would have been off topic, and instead contributes a genuine thesis about the 'science of science' that is delightfully fresh. Many of his vignettes were entirely new to me: the coPub approach to discovering links between disparate domains of science, his review of Galton's more esoteric studies (apparently Galton was an early Scientometrician, the book discusses several great studies I'd never heard of), and the 'Bone Wars' that have shaped the public knowledge of dinosaurs.
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45 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Expected a bit better November 10, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a book on a very interesting subject that mostly irritated me in the end.

I think the biggest issue I had with it was the very myopic view applied to the topics. And the fact that I think that Mr Arbesman really makes too much of the methods he relies on to tell a story. Basically the book relies on the idea that you can graph anything that you can put a number on, and then using math that is complicated compared to, say what you learn in high school, you can fit a line to any graph and a lot of times that line is a particular family of curves. He makes it sound very magical but its not really - sometimes the fit is great and you can learn a lot from it but you can do this, like I said for anything. It doesn't per se, mean anything major. It isn't really even uncovering any secrets of how things are organized in nature or the world - we're fitting the lines after all.

Plus, when he talks about science he seems to ignore lots of factors that would make his "story" messier or just different. He talks a lot about citations of research papers but without seemingly understanding how people actually function in science. Finally, at the end, he has a chapter that promises to discuss the "human" aspects of knowledge generation but he doesn't really do that there either. What I mean is, he attributes the fact that few references in papers appear to have been actually read by the authors to laziness and doesn't talk at all about how social networks among scientists influence choice of citations (i.e. I cite what my boss cites, or even better, what he wrote) despite have a whole chapter on the social movement of information just earlier in the book! Lame, I say!
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Half-Life of Facts October 24, 2012
After I saw Samuel Arbesman speak at Tedx Kansas City a few weeks ago, I knew I had to read his book. The premise of his talk and his book is that facts are not really information set in stone, the way we usually think about them. The world is constantly changing and nothing is for certain forever. I was floored by the notion that what my kids are learning in school may contradict what I learned in school. For some reason, that notion had never occurred to me!

The Half-Life of Facts is easily understood by a lay person. I found it very readable and I don't have a head for science at all. Each chapter outlines a different reason why facts may either change or be found to be untrue. Arbesman uses examples throughout, all of which I found fascinating. I would love to read even more stories about which facts have changed over time and why.

I was surprised by some of the facts that are no longer true. For instance, did you know that there really isn't a dinosaur called a Brontosaurus? I had no idea and both of my boys have been through dinosaur obsessions within the past few years. The Brontosaurus was found to be a type of Apatosaurus over a hundred years ago. However, once something is out in the ether, it's really hard to circulate information modifying or correcting the original assertion.

I appreciated that not only does Arbesman discuss the various ways in which untruths persist and facts change over time, he also offers suggestions of how to keep current without getting information overload.

I love that in keeping with the spirit of The Half-Life of Facts, Arbesman's website has a Errata and Updates section for the book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars very fascinating
This book makes you think, and you can extrapolate the ideas to other concepts, ideas or 'facts' to explain the flow of knowledge in general.
Published 8 days ago by Marie Gardner
1.0 out of 5 stars this is a terrible book
I had to read this in a class for college. The author just babbles on and on about nonsense. Ok the facts change-you could have told us all of this informations with out fluffing... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Joshua sarnataro
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun and informative
Arbesman's writing is very fun and informative.

This book makes for a very enjoyable read, and I loved learn more about how human knowledge is shaped and evolves... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Arnobio
2.0 out of 5 stars Boring
I bought this book because I read Nate Silver's "The Signal and the Noise" which was fantastic and Amazon recommended it. I wish I hadn't. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Matt
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent information
Well put together, perhaps a bit too technical in places but very informative. This book should be a must for schools.
Published 6 months ago by Henry Hynes
4.0 out of 5 stars Filled with interesting "facts" on cognition, perception, thinking and...
My only nit-picking issue is that the author never gets completely around to the conclusion proffered in the introduction. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Dave Martin
3.0 out of 5 stars Half Life of Facts
The book was a study without direction. The book read as a list of discontacted facts without clear statement of what was being proved. Read more
Published 8 months ago by David R Reed Jr
3.0 out of 5 stars great overview in layman's terms of the state of flux concerning what...
I liked the examples of facts and the way they change and have changed. He had some powerful illustrations that helped one grasp the limitation of human knowledge and... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Amish Hacker
2.0 out of 5 stars The fact is, it's really trite
A mildly interesting book for a very short while, the content of which would better be presented in a magainze article. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Interested customer
4.0 out of 5 stars new way of thinking about 'things'
Have not finished reading the book but what I have read has sparked some new thinking. Really look forward to what the author has to say next .. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Lindamae
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