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.
There’s also 6 more elements on the periodic table since 1994.
Everyone is constantly reminded of President Eisenhower's warning about the "Military-Industrial Complex" in his farewell address, a good warning, but few remember his equally stark warning about the Scientific Research-Government Complex he emphasized in the same address.
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.Ike was a very wise man. I doubt he would be happy looking at our condition today.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientifictechnological elite.
It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.
Don’t worry. 2 + 2 will ALWAYS be 5!!! And don’t you forget it! :)
Knowledge and facts actually shrink for the individual. When I was younger I knew much more than I do now and was much more certain of it than I am now.
However I like to think experience has somewhat offset this retreat in knowledge. And like collecting valuables I now concentrate on quality of knowledge rather than quantity.
I’m worried the only things I’ll remember are the things that are no-longer true.
LOL! Thanks for the link.
Ike was a very wise man. I doubt he would be happy looking at our condition today.
Ike died primarily because he conscientiously followed the misguided nutritional advice of the "experts".
He had a heart attack. The "experts" decided his cholesterol was too high, so they put him on a low-calorie, low-fat diet. His cholesterol went up. So they put him on a lower-calorie, lower-fat diet. And his cholesterol went up more. And so it went. Ike had discipline. He followed the advice he was given to the letter. And that advice killed him.
Since then, our public health functionaries have been working overtime to convince people that the same low-calorie, low-fat approach that killed Eisenhower is what everyone should be doing. And that if a diet that demonstrably increases the risk of heart disease should happen to raise your cholesterol to normal levels, you should start taking statins for the rest of your life, despite their severe side-effects, and the complete lack of evidence that they reduce the risk of a heart in anyone who has never had one.
And this advice advice has killed millions, and constrained millions of others to lives of obesity, chronic illness, and diabetes.
In terms of human cost, the cholesterol hypothesis is by far the greatest mistake in all of human history.
And it has been clear that it was a mistake for decades, now. But there are billion dollar industries that depend on that mistake. And it's very hard to convince a man that he's wrong when his livelihood depends on him being wrong.
Unless those elements are down under the actinide/lanthanide series, they’re more of a novelty than anything else. Now, if we start finding new two-digit-numbered elements, then I’ll be impressed.
Second, and one disturbing to me (as one who was called 'baby killer" on my way home from overseas in the San Francisco airport in 1966) , is that returning veterans from the Vietnam weren't actually treated so badly after all. Last night on C-Span the current CEO of Slate was reviewing his new book about the glory and wonder of San Francisco, and told of how all the returning vets he knew there in the '60's and 70's (who by the way were all drug users and probably shared the SF values) were treated very well by his friends - it was a pack of conservative lies that they had been disrespected and even spit on. Then remarkably tonight on the C-Span history channel, there was coverage of a class session by a Meredith Lair of the history department at George Mason University, of all places, who seemed intent on proving essentially the same point, in particular that returning vets were never spat on - meticulously she questioned all possible proof that such incidents ever took place, her primary evidence seeming to be that because this class of twenty year olds, two generations removed from Vietnam, knew no one who first-hand had been treated with disrespec as a returning vet from that war, it never happened. She pointed out that there seemed to be no actual photos of soldiers being spit on, although there were she claimed pictures of anti-war protesters being spit on and she later produced a picture which she maintained had been photoshopped to show Code Pink protesters in 2005 urging the murder of US troops - so you see, it turns out by her implication that our returning soldiers have always been treated kindly, while it's the anti-war types who have been disrespected and lied about - facts are indeed ephemeral things......
a good reason to never give absolute trust over anything of your to any “expert”. lok’at all the stuff docs used to tell people and require god-like obedience to their superior intellect. hell i still have the ads of doctors pushing smoking. doctors saying the appendix or tailbones have no useful purpose.
one thing they didn’t factor in is the quality of education keeps going down, at least in the gubmint skooolz. your education quality and your ability to learn make up for a lot.
If it didn’t exist in 1986 , I don’t need to know it.
Teacher said I passed. No take backs . :)
If it didn’t exist in 1986 , I don’t need to know it.
Teacher said I passed. No take backs . :)
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.
Well some "facts" change not because of increased knowledge but because the "facts" have changed...such as the population of a city. While those "facts" which are shown to be wrong by increase in human knowledge were wrong before the knowledge increased (or perhaps they are still right, and further increases in knowledge will favor them). For myself, I think in terms of "working models" when it comes to describing nature, rather than facts. No such model being complete. All being less than entirely accurate or entirely precise, and except for those things noted by Pascal (ie the existence of one's own soul) the truth or falsehood of all things being less than absolutely certain no matter what the date.
“Shoes for industry’’.
>>I dont remember posting here. Where am I? Am I logged in?
Maybe it’s my twisted sense of humor, this was one of the funniest posts I’ve read here. Thanks for the laugh!
That they decay means they weren’t truths in the first place. There’s a big terminology problem with this article, with facts being changed, remade, unmade etc. But then why call them facts? Because people think they’re factual? If it turns out they were wrong it means they were wrong, is all. Not that facts have changed.
Cutesy postmodernism bores me. Poetry is something else, and I’ll allow Robert Frost in “Black Cottage” what I won’t the author of this article observe:
“For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favor”
You don’t have to imagine entirely. We already know, for instance, how the infamous “hockey stick” graph was concocted. Tracing the impact of it and how error was compounded upon it is infinitely more complex, but at least we know the launchpad for much of their adventures beyond reality.
That almost certainly wasn’t written by Eisenhower himself. But he had the sand to say it, which is more than I can say for all state-worshipping politicians since.
Next thing you'll be telling me is that Fred and Wilma didn't live next door to Barney and Betty in Bedrock.
The original author has made a major mistake in terminology. A fact is something that can be proved; facts don’t change. What he is calling fact is inference, or conclusions drawn from facts. As our knowlege increases, including more facts, the inferences we make from that knowlege can change, sometimes drastically.
What is true, is we ought to get as much empirical data as possible before we settle on the "facts."
To paraphrase Yogi Berra’s dictum: fifty percent of life is ninety percent mental. So there.
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).
Facts do no change. The definition of a fact is that it is a true statement, thus it cannot change. Our apprehension of truth, our perception of what is, in fact, a fact, can change but the fact itself cannot change. Those facts that “changed” as described in the opening paragraph were not facts but merely mistaken opinions about facts.
What did he call the Judicial/law enforcement/prison complex.
The military/industrial has killed more people in other Countries however the JLP complex is the one Americans need to fear as they will use tools supplied by the MI on citizens of the USA
So then just what the hell was in all those brontosaurus burger I ate?!!!