Skip to comments.Half the Facts You Know Are Probably Wrong
Posted on 01/03/2013 7:37:50 PM PST by neverdem
Old truths decay and new ones are born at an astonishing rate.
Dinosaurs were cold-blooded. Increased K-12 spending and lower pupil/teacher ratios boost public school student outcomes. Most of the DNA in the human genome is junk. Saccharin causes cancer and a high fiber diet prevents it. Stars cannot be bigger than 150 solar masses.
In the past half-century, all of the foregoing facts have turned out to be wrong. In the modern world facts change all of the time, according to Samuel Arbesman, author of the new book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (Current).
Fact-making is speeding up, writes Arbesman, a senior scholar at the Kaufmann Foundation and an expert in scientometrics, the science of measuring and analyzing science. As facts are made and remade with increasing speed, Arbesman is worried that most of us dont keep up to date. That means were basing decisions on facts dimly remembered from school and university classesfacts that often turn out to be wrong.
In 1947, the mathematician Derek J. de Solla Price was asked to store a complete set of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society temporarily in his house. Price stacked them in chronological order by decade, and he noticed that the number of volumes doubled about every 15 years, i.e., scientific knowledge was apparently growing at an exponential rate. Thus the field of scientometrics was born.
Price started to analyze all sorts of other kinds of scientific data, and concluded in 1960 that scientific knowledge had been growing steadily at a rate of 4.7 percent annually for the last three centuries. In 1965, he exuberantly observed, All crude measures, however arrived at, show to a first approximation that science increases exponentially, at a compound interest of about 7 percent per annum, thus doubling in size every 1015 years, growing by a factor of 10 every half century, and by something like a factor of a million in the 300 years which separate us from the seventeenth-century invention of the scientific paper when the process began.
A 2010 study in the journal Scientometrics, looking at data between 1907 and 2007, concurred: The overall growth rate for science still has been at least 4.7 percent per year.
Since knowledge is still growing at an impressively rapid pace, it should not be surprising that many facts people learned in school have been overturned and are now out of date. But at what rate do former facts disappear? Arbesman applies to the dissolution of facts the concept of half-lifethe time required for half the atoms of a given amount of a radioactive substance to disintegrate. For example, the half-life of the radioactive isotope strontium-90 is just over 29 years. Applying the concept of half-life to facts, Arbesman cites research that looked into the decay in the truth of clinical knowledge about cirrhosis and hepatitis. The half-life of truth was 45 years, he found.
In other words, half of what physicians thought they knew about liver diseases was wrong or obsolete 45 years later. Similarly, ordinary peoples brains are cluttered with outdated lists of things, such as the 10 biggest cities in the United States.
Facts are being manufactured all of the time, and, as Arbesman shows, many of them turn out to be wrong. Checking each one is how the scientific process is supposed to work; experimental results need to be replicated by other researchers. So how many of the findings in 845,175 articles published in 2009 and recorded in PubMed, the free online medical database, were actually replicated? Not all that many. In 2011, a disquieting study in Nature reported that a team of researchers over 10 years was able to reproduce the results of only six out of 53 landmark papers in preclinical cancer research.
In 2005, the physician and statistician John Ioannides published Why Most Published Research Findings Are False in the journal PLoS Medicine. Ioannides cataloged the flaws of much biomedical research, pointing out that reported studies are less likely to be true when they are small, the postulated effect is likely to be weak, research designs and endpoints are flexible, financial and nonfinancial conflicts of interest are common, and competition in the field is fierce. Ioannides concluded that for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias. Still, knowledge marches on, spawning new facts and changing old ones.
Another reason that personal knowledge decays is that people cling to selected facts as a way to justify their beliefs about how the world works. Arbesman notes, We persist in only adding facts to our personal store of knowledge that jibe with what we already know, rather than assimilate new facts irrespective of how they fit into our worldview. All too true; confirmation bias is everywhere.
So is there anything we can do to keep up to date with the changing truth? Arbesman suggests that simply knowing that our factual knowledge bases have a half-life should keep us humble and ready to seek new information. Well, hope springs eternal.
More daringly, Arbesman suggests, Stop memorizing things and just give up. Our individual memories can be outsourced to the cloud. Through the Internet, we can search for any fact we need any time. Really? The Web is great for finding an up-to-date list of the 10 biggest cities in the United States, but if the scientific literature is littered with wrong facts, then cyberspace is an enticing quagmire of falsehoods, propaganda, and just plain bunkum. There simply is no substitute for skepticism.
Toward the end of his book, Arbesman suggests that exponential knowledge growth cannot continue forever. Among the reasons he gives for the slowdown is that current growth rates imply that everyone on the planet would one day be a scientist. The 2010 Scientometrics study also mused about the growth rate in the number of scientists and offered a conjecture that the borderline between science and other endeavors in the modern, global society will become more and more blurred. Most may be scientists after all. Arbesman notes that the number of neurons that can be recorded simultaneously has been growing exponentially, with a doubling time of about seven and a half years. This suggests that brain/computer linkages will one day be possible.
I, for one, am looking forward to updating my factual knowledge daily through a direct telecommunications link from my brain to digitized contents of the Library of Congress.
Half of this article will prove to be non-factual in a few years.
This is depressing. Not only is my schooling outdated and wrong but at my age my memory decay is on the order of the half-life of the radioactive isotope strontium-90. I’m screwed.
And the other half you didn't know are probably right.
Old truths decay
Kind of like "old tooths decay." Like the root canal I just had today. Life is becoming more like one long root canal appointment...
Every day 100 tons of bs is dumped on our heads.
Did the bill passed on News Year day raise or lower spending?
You're too late.
Only half? Major win!
“...and everything you know is wrong.” (The Firesign Theater)
(But I knew that already.)
IMO, one of the biggest problems is - scientists are people too. While they will extoll the virtues of the scientific method...doing research and going where the evidence takes them...as a rule they all have egos and are more interested in proving their own preconceived notions (theories).
I’ve followed the Neaderthal question out of curiosity. It’s amazing how many highly regarded anthrpologists simply disregard the DNA evidence that has come out in the last few years. It simply doesn’t fit their model.
I don’t remember posting here. Where am I? Am I logged in?
I bet the author never got over having to memorizing his multiplication tables as a child.
Facts can change over time truth doesn’t. But then low information voter create their own truth. Then there are factoids.Also how can one know anything if by the time it’s published it is out dated.
"Although the mistake was known since the early 20th century, the name Brontosaurus was still used in popular culture and the media, and even on museum displays."
Me too. "They" say the last Neanderthals died out some 20,000 years ago based on fossil evidence. I think they were (or still are) around much closer to our own time. Based on fossil eveidence, chimpanzees died out about 20,000 years ago too.
Academics are some of the most political, vicious backstabbers of any group of people. They will work not only to disprove another person's theory, but to destroy the person. There are many examples of scientists being driven out of their field by the old gaurd protecting their work from new ideas, only to have the new ideas eventually proven correct, but too late for the original scientist who proposed the idea.
The 50% is 100% of what the libs tell you!!!
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
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