The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date 1st Edition
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—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.”
“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
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I learned a lot from this book. However, I found the repetition of the statement underlying regularity not an argument. I felt that the underlying potential mechanisms that lead to these regularities were tantalizingly suggested but not explored. The patterns, which I agree we do not usually consider for information/knowledge, are important but I would have liked more discussion of types of growth, graph theory (metrics and their uses), self-organized criticality, data mining etc. These are all discussed and I accept that a taste of the "unreasonable effectiveness of Mathematics" in explaining the world rather than a Mathematical book per se. This is a minor point. It reflects more my expectations than anything else. I would have liked more plots demonstrating the relationships of interest but the tables and plots did merge well with the text.
Finally, I enjoyed the cover design of the dust jacket with "FACTS" created by particles with the particles disassembling and strewn on the rest of the jacket, much as sand being blown by the "winds of change", suggesting the fragile nature of facts. This was on the background of grid lines reminiscent of graph pads from school days: a reference to Mathematics facility for understanding these changes.
Yet the book doesn't really deliver. Despite the exciting thesis, repeated in the opening paragraphs of numerous chapters, that the phenomena of exponential growth of facts and loss of facts in various fields of knowledge can be described precisely as mathematical models, what we end up with is more like those scientific findings so beloved, it seems, by the media. Researchers have found that (fill in the blank), which could lead to (fill in the blank). Alas, we seldom learn enough about such findings to know how to evaluate them; that would take much, much more effort on the reporting side than the story is worth to the publisher, and, of course, would demand much, much more of the reader than such a one would be prepared to invest in reading the newspaper or listening to the evening news. So out of a decent respect for an author whose scientific credentials are not negligible--but neither are they formidable--I will not severely criticize a work that most probably would never have seen the light of publication day, at least not outside of strictly academic publishing, had it been able to deliver much of what it promises.
Ever since I read Toeffler's "Future Shock" I have realized that there are some ideas so simple that they can be completely expressed in a sentence or two, but so grand that it takes a book-length treatment to make the impression they are entitled to. That book's central theme is the essence of simplicity--our world is changing so rapidly today that it is outpacing our ability to adapt. But putting the idea in a sentence denigrates it. It truly was worth a book. At least to me.
The idea of this book is equally simple; the things we take as facts may later be proven not to be true. And the author offers plenty of examples of how our understanding of things changes. How what seemed to be facts can be overturned. To me, at least, this is pretty obvious stuff. We are constantly bombarded with :"facts" which turn out not to be correct, and anyone who goes through life believing everything he hears is going to be in a lot of trouble.
But the problem is not that "facts" change--it is that we are too often offered theories of why things are or happen, and these theories are too often presented as "facts." The pre-Copernican view of the solar system they knew was never a fact--it was an effort to jam all of the known facts into a theory attempting to rationalize all of the facts about the universe that were known at the time.
And today is not that much better than 1500. The people who are supposed to know these things have announced that the entire universe originated with a "Big Bang" some billions of years ago. Perhaps. But that surely is not a fact. It is a theory; a conjecture. One which, incidentally, remqarkably like the conjectures of the Ancient Greek Atomists. Over time, the theory will be constantly tested as new facts are learned. Perhaps it will survive. The history of ideas suggests that it will not.
There are more productive ways to spend one's time than plowing through this book. That's not a fact--it's a theory.
Top international reviews
This is a great little book that is jam-packed with insights and bang-up-to-date thinking on the subject of knowledge and veracity. I highly recommend it as an essential tool for your skeptical tool-kit. The author of this book, Sam Arbesman, is one to watch. I look forward to reading his future work.
Mike Sutton is author of
Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret