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News & Opinion

The Half-Life of Facts

August 13, 2012

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In chapter 1 of his new book, Samuel Arbesman gets this out of the way early: To be clear: I'm using the word fact in an intuitive way—a bit of knowledge that we know, either as individuals, as a society, or as something about the state of the world. We generally like our facts to be an accurate representation of reality, an objective truth, but that's not always the case. Having digested the above, it becomes pretty easy to see the potentially global application of Arbesman's book.

In chapter 1 of his new book, Samuel Arbesman gets this out of the way early:
To be clear: I'm using the word fact in an intuitive way—a bit of knowledge that we know, either as individuals, as a society, or as something about the state of the world. We generally like our facts to be an accurate representation of reality, an objective truth, but that's not always the case.
Having digested the above, it becomes pretty easy to see the potentially global application of Arbesman's book. Though the book uses mostly scientific cases to demonstrate Arbesman's point, when we take the looser definition of a fact into consideration, the opportunity for finding changing 'facts' becomes endless. Arbesman groups facts into three categories relating to their likelihood to change. Some facts take a long time to change or die, and these facts often outlive generations of humans. Other facts change daily: things like stock prices, temperatures, and virtually any other mundane detail. But the facts that live in between these two groups are the primary focus of Arbesman's book. He calls them mesofacts, and according to him, there is value to understanding how and when these facts will change:
If my grandfather had been told in dental school that a specific fraction of the knowledge he learned there would become obsolete soon after he graduated, this could at least provide an anchor for his uncertainty.
Arbesman's lesson here can work for any of us, at any time. Simply raising our awareness about the likelihood of a 'fact' to change can help us in dealing with these changes when they do arrive. Especially if you struggle with bias (if you don't think you do, then this book is definitely for you), this book can help to keep you on your toes and be aware that yesterday's perspectives might not work tomorrow (or even today).

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