The Half Life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman

The Half Life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman review

Facts and our use of them are big news today. And all the talk and hype present a challenge to us all: what can we trust and how can we be a discerning learner in today’s information environment? You’d like to know that the information fueling your views and learning describes something that is true — and that you can rely on that knowledge when you need it in the future. You’d also like to believe that when you know something, it will stand the test of time – that what you learn is factual and won’t change unless new insights and evidence demands it. And, hopefully, you’d like to know that, when you share information that will affect others’ thinking, it is trustworthy. You want to know that by sharing you are helping to spread “truths” that will help people be smarter about the world as it is: you don’t want to be spreading “fake news.”

Facts and factual information are important bases for living our lives, making decisions, and learning. But what are facts and how should we think about them. Are they fixed? Do they change? If they change, how can we trust them?  And where do we find facts, and how do they (as well as lies and untruths) spread?

Samuel Arbesman, a social network expert and mathematician spends an entire book answering these questions.  It is a fascinating book filled with current and historical examples and stories. We are all participants in this rapidly changing information world, so his insights can help us in our own pursuit of truth and learning. Let’s see what he says on this topic of factual information

How should we think about “facts?”

Here is how Arbesman defines “fact.”

…a bit of knowledge that we know, either as individuals or as a society, as something about the state of the world.  We generally like our facts to represent an accurate representation of reality, an objective truth, but that’s not always the case.”

He says that some fields are more stringent in what they will call a fact. For them, a fact must be verifiable across many situations, and not just a conclusion that applies in one situation. In fact, scientists arrive at “truths” because they are always looking for ways to “refute” a fact – to discover if and how it may not fully describe “reality.” Obviously, when we are talking about something concrete in nature – atoms, how certain materials behave under certain conditions, what happens at the freezing point of water, whether 1+1=2 – we can be more “certain” of facts than if we are talking about something involving a variety of different factors, like social behavior. But, a scientist would be careful about conclusions and fact statements in both situations.

Here are some of the key points Arbesman makes in The Half Life of Facts.

Facts change over time. Facts and knowledge fields that contain them (e.g., physics, psychology, opera) change as we learn more and get a better understanding (e.g., people used to believe the world was flat until more information from mariners proved that was not true).  Knowledge/facts may also change when better measurement systems and tools come along. Think about how the invention of the clock, double entry accounting tools, electron microscopes, even organization culture surveys have given us new insights that weren’t possible before these tools appeared.

To punctuate his point about facts being in flux, Arbesman presents a rather descriptive quote from a British Professor of Literature, William MacNeil Dixon:

“The facts of the present won’t sit still for a portrait.  They are constantly vibrating, full of clutter and confusion.”

Facts may also change when different fields come together to create new insights and even new fields. For example, biotechnology now uses organisms (biology), not traditional manufacturing methods, to produce things like antibiotics.

So, facts are not fixed. But they are not something we can make up, either.

Some facts change faster than others – but many changes happen in predictable ways.  He compares facts to radio-active isotopes: they have “half-lives” which means the length of time it takes for 50% of the knowledge (facts) in a specific area to become irrelevant, or to be disproved or replaced.  Some fields have very, very short half-lives like popular music.  Fields that depend on discoveries in other fields change more slowly than others (e.g., medical practice knowledge draws on knowledge from biology, so its half-life is longer.)

Because facts/knowledge does change, it is important to notice assumptions we are making that may be based on knowledge that is no longer relevant. For example, we may assume that our country is the most advanced in some areas where other countries have slowly overtaken us (e.g., in education, quality of infrastructure). Or we may assume that our children – who have matured and now have more capabilities – can’t handle increased freedom.

The half-life of facts in many fields is rapidly shortening due to the Internet, communications and social media, global travel, the removal of knowledge sharing barriers due to electronic language translators, big data discoveries of knowledge patterns hidden in lots of data, etc.

However, knowledge in a new area of exploration may first accumulate rapidly (e.g., knowledge in neuroscience has been increasing at rapid rates), but may slow down after the more obvious discoveries have occurred. As I read this, I thought about the situation that oil companies find themselves in: the early deposits were easy to access and mine. Now they must explore more difficult terrain in mountains and the sea). Of course, a new perspective or paradigm may emerge that changes the questions we are asking and how we view the area we are learning. (Imagine how solar and wind are changing the energy paradigm, or how knowledge about the earth changed when the paradigm shifted from flat to round earth.)

If you want to keep up to date on the current facts in your field, be ready for what you know to change and change at accelerating rates. But know that the changes in knowledge are not random or based on ill-informed opinion. Changes and advancements are possible because there is a reliable base of past knowledge to build on or refute.

Generally, it is good to approach information – even in the most subjective areas of art, social behavior, psychology – as a scientist would.  The scientist is always trying to understand “the origins, nature, and behavior of the universe and all it contains.” If that is our goal, then we will be astute users and spreaders of facts vs. misinformation.

Facts spread through human networks? Factual information spreads in the same way as misinformation and opinions – so we now enter a very important field of responsibility for all of us. In his chapter on “The Spread of Facts,” Arbesman says, “Social networks spread information.” He talks about how the new field of Network Science explores information diffusion, and there are some pretty interesting conclusions.

Here are some “facts” about how information spreads. The first information out there gets the most attention and is often the most tenacious – whether it is the information at the top of a Google search or the first information that is released about something. Also, as information spreads, it is easy for it to become distorted – misspellings, misquotes, spreading an inaccurate interpretation (remember the game of “telephone” we played as kids?

Some facts may exist but not spread. They may be hidden amongst useless data, or be known in one field, but not another. Or they may be ideas that are “before their time” (e.g., some scientists knew that infections were often caused by dirty surgical instruments long before doctors adopted sterilization practices).  Facts may be locked up in tightly knit small groups who don’t share what they know. And, there is probably a lot of knowledge that has been lost forever because people didn’t or couldn’t record it or pass it on or because the records were lost.

Sometimes there are great leaps forward in knowledge – new thinking and the facts behind them reach a kind of tipping point and the rate of adoption of the new thinking increases.

Humans color and distort facts.  As humans, we have built in mechanisms that distort information.  Arbesman explains some of these.  For example, we have different views of what is “normal.”  Generally, we see what we started with as normal: e.g., if your initial experience is in a world where women are subordinate to men, that may be “normal” for you – so you will not tend to believe any “facts” that contradict this. We also develop theories and assumptions – e.g., assumptions about certain groups of people. Arbesman quotes Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman on this theory-induced blindness: “an adherence to a belief about how the world works that prevents you from seeing how the world really works.”

The closeness and distance of our relationships (which influences our trust) affects what we accept as true, too. As a social network scientist, Arbesman’s insights are valuable here, too. He notes that although we can have unlimited contacts in social media, our social ties seem limited to 150-200 people (a researched “fact” called Dunbar’s Number). And, amazingly, we can only have 4 really close relationships – more than that and the quality of intimacy declines.  The important point here, is that our trust levels are related to the intensity of our social ties.  This affects what we believe – and is a human tendency that we should be aware of because it affects our view of what is true and reliable.

What Does All This Mean for Us as Decision Makers and Learners?

Facts, knowledge, are the fuel for decisions and learning. In my new book, Unstoppable You: Adopt the New Learning 4.0 Mindset and Change Your Life,  I suggest that today we all need to be smart users of information (one of the ten 4.0 Learner Qualities). As part of this, it’s important to understand what constitutes facts/knowledge.  Arbesman helps us here.

I’d like to highlight some of the implications and suggest that you get his book, The Half Life of Facts” Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. Here are the highlight implications for you as a decision-maker and learner:

  • Expect “facts” to change – but be wary of making up your own facts. They do change – based on new discoveries, new ways of measuring them. But this doesn’t mean you can change them at whim or because they are inconvenient or don’t fit your embedded view of what is “normal” or how the world “should” be.
  • Know the rate of change of knowledge in important areas of your work and life. Facts/knowledge in some fields change faster than others. The rate of change is described in terms of “half-life”—the amount of time it takes for 50% of the knowledge in an area to become obsolete. Know the “half-life” of knowledge in your field (one estimate for engineering is 10 years, for example). It will tell you how vital continual learning is to your ability to stay relevant.
  • Be alert to the assumptions that underlie what you say and do. Some opinions you hold may be based on “facts” that are of date.
  • Continually renew and revalidate your knowledge in any area. Start by being aware of the half-life of facts in your field. This tells you how fast change will occur and how quickly you will have to adapt. Recognize that changes (expansions, refinements, new perspectives, etc.) in knowledge are happening at increasingly faster rates because of the internet, communications and social media, global travel, the removal of knowledge sharing barriers due to electronic language translators, big data discoveries of knowledge patterns hidden in lots of data, etc.)
  • Be careful about the information and conclusions you believe and spread. Even though your views may be “facts” to you, they can be misinformation in the world at large. What you say may be picked up by your friends, spread on social media, and take on a life of its own. Share your thoughts as your perspective, experience, opinions, conclusions and desires not “facts.” And watch your logic. Present specific events and stories as unique events, not truths about the world at large. If you ever studied logic, you would know that the following statement is faulty reasoning: “Animal x is a rabbit. Animal x is bad. Therefore, all rabbits are bad.” You know this is ridiculous, but this type of thinking is very common in our conversations and media today.
  • Seek the truth in all you do. Be curious. Be aware of your assumptions and comfort zone. Ask questions and be ready to stand firm when you think the facts warrant it, and to change your mind when they don’t.  As a 4.0 learner, you are entitled to your opinions and beliefs, but you are also a scientist seeking a more accurate view of what is going on and how you can use new knowledge to change your life and add value in the world around you.  That’s what 4.0 learning is all about.

Pat McLagan’s new book launches on 23 May 2017. Unstoppable You: Adopt the New Learning 4.0 Mindset and Change Your Life.