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The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

3.56  ·  Rating details ·  1,024 ratings  ·  152 reviews
New insights from the science of science
  Facts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that Pluto was a planet. For decades, we were convinced that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur. In short, what we know about the world is constantly changing.   But it turns out there’s an
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published September 27th 2012 by Current
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Mar 30, 2015 rated it really liked it

Way back in 2012, I discovered Netgalley and requested a few books. But somehow, I lost track of my acceptances and eventually forgot all about Netgalley. My ARC of The Half-Life of Facts lay neglected, forgotten, and unread. The years went by, and eventually, I rediscovered Netgalley, only to find that I had a black mark on my record: I'd never read or reviewed The Half-Life of Facts. Although I've been slowly repairing my reviewing ratio, I only discovered recently that I could actually go
Aug 14, 2013 rated it liked it
The Half-Life of Facts is an engaging, popular introduction to several topics within information science. The title comes from the notion that one can measure the rate at which papers within a discipline become obsolete, assigning a half-life to each field. The author explicitly uses 'fact' in a loose sense; he means, things we understand to be true about the universe.

The book is filled with anecdotes and is highly readable. On the down side, the author never presents an overarching framework f
Rich Mcghee
Jan 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
This was a good book, but the writing left something to desired.

Overall, the ideas the author presents are sound, and he uses a plethora of examples to show the reader what he is talking about, which I liked very much. However, his style is somewhat jumpy, bouncing between three or four related topics per chapter. I think his point was to try and connect these related ideas in a meaningful way, but I felt he could have done this better.

The content of the book is obviously where this book shines
Kevin Nuut
Dec 26, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: big-data
It gets repetitive but wraps with a good message. In the spirit of the book, I will soon forget it's advice. ...more
Michael Quinn
Apr 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Arbesman presents a very broad and entertaining survey of the current state of science. The book touches on a huge array of issues that concern scientific work, like falsification, reproducibility, the combination of different fields and the process of generating new knowledge. Similarly, these topics are illustrated with anecdotes from throughout science. Arbesman tackles behavioral issues, astronomy, paleontology, physics, chemistry and many more topics. His digressions tend to be brief, and t ...more
Bill Leach
May 21, 2014 rated it it was ok
Interesting, but unsurprising.

1 The Half Life of Facts
- facts, in terms of current knowledge, have a half life
2. The Pace of Discovery
- the growth of knowledge is exponential - 1947 Lehman study suggested doubling times from 20 years in Grand Opera to 87 years in medicine
3. The Asymptote of Truth
- knowledge decays, as in being over-turned and becoming obsolete, exponentially
4. Moore's Law of Everything
- discussion of the exponential growth of technology
- technology expands among larger groups, b
Oct 15, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
I actually thought this would be more about social media and the ultra fast news cycle, but it was still an ok read. I take issue on the very loose definition of "facts" used in the book, there's a big difference between discovering that the Earth revolves around the sun, figuring out the one billionth digit of pi, measuring a value with an increased level of accuracy and precision, and using meta-analysis to increase the statistical significance of a study. According to the author, an underlyin ...more
Pete Welter
Oct 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
A range of topics centered on the lifespan of facts - why go out of date faster than we think, and how we as human handle this. Arbesman looks at how various scientific and technological "facts" - the various types of facts and their certainty, measurement and transmission.

If you are interested in the way knowledge spreads, or in how we are handling the current explosion in technical and factual knowledge, this book is well worth the read. My takeaways:

* if you don't want facts to go stale - st
Mar 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
I wish I thought that I would be able to remember everything I learned from this book, though Arbesman did give me an out by suggesting that the time has come to outsource our memories to the cloud because that's the best way of getting the latest information. But already I'm forgetting some of the mechanisms of error that humans are prone to, lapsing back into them. I can feel my sharp edges blurring.

This is a wonderful book! Turns out that nearly everything can be quantified in ways I never dr
Mark Shainblum
Mar 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
Absolutely brilliant. I'll say more soon, but if you're interested in science and knowledge, do yourself a favour and read this book. ...more
Facts change over time. Some, we expect to change. One hundred years ago, the answer to “How many billion people on earth?” was: two. When I was at school that changed from four to five. Recently, it became seven. Others, like "How many fingers on a human hand?”, we expect to remain constant (at least for a very long time). Sometimes even these sorts of facts, however, change unexpectedly. From 1912 to 1956 scientists were certain there were 48 chromosomes in a human cell. Some even had to aband ...more
Jan 20, 2013 rated it liked it
My bottom line is that this is an interesting work and the reader will learn from it, but there were far too many poorly worded questionable passages and disastrous sentence structures in this book for either author or editor to be praised.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Maybe author Samuel Arbesman should have made his best points earlier. He almost lost this reviewer along the way.

To declare early, "I am choosing to use 'fact' in a loose fashion," sounds tantamount to "playing loose with the fact
Kent Winward
Jul 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Not only are our politics fact challenged, our science is as well. Biggest difference? Science has a self-correcting mechanism built in. Wonderful wonky book on statistical reviews of how facts change over time.
Mar 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Insightful, optimistic description of how facts age and gets renewed and how knowledge creation is actually predictable.
Dave Minehan
Sep 02, 2020 rated it liked it
Probably made more sense when it was published. Solid recap of a bunch of disparate, interesting ideas, but lacks connective tissue that would make it hit.
Aug 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Was drawn to this book due to the relevancy of "alternative facts". Discusses the transfer, turnover rate, and origins of knowledge. Highly recommend if anyone is interested in how what we know as "fact" actually changes over time. ...more
Dec 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a bit dry and mathematically-minded, but still a good discussion of change in truth as we know it over time. It covers corrections in scientific understanding (e.g. the nature of the atom) and things you would expect to shift, such as the biggest cities in the world or the best way to treat a nosebleed. Samuel Arbesman is looking at this mostly from the meta-science of looking at how knowledge changes, where it turns out that change in facts frequently behave predictably in the aggregate ...more
Oct 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012, non-fiction, kindle
After I saw Samuel Arbesman speak at Tedx Kansas City a few weeks ago, I knew I had to read his book. The premise of his talk and his book is that facts are not really information set in stone, the way we usually think about them. The world is constantly changing and nothing is for certain forever. I was floored by the notion that what my kids are learning in school may contradict what I learned in school. For some reason, that notion had never occurred to me!

The Half-Life of Facts is easily und
Oct 27, 2012 rated it did not like it
This book didn't really deliver. While it did provide estimates of turnover in facts in various areas of knowledge (though based on very doubtful methodologies), it didn't provide much guidance on how to deal with it and the guidance it did provide was little more than "look it up on the internet" - oddly this was seen as a good thing and it was touted as a good thing to effectively outsource our memories to the cloud. The problem with this is that it will ultimately lead to the death of innovat ...more
Dec 06, 2016 rated it liked it
I tried very hard to like this book.
I want to like it a lot more than I did. I also want to remember everything I read because it is interesting. Overall, I know that won't happen, but the take-away is things change. Things that can be taken as fact change, so we should ensure to question what is a fact, where it came from, and understand the cycle of "facts".
He speaks about a lot of great ideas, uses many great examples, and diagrams. I just had such a hard time staying engaged for long period
Oct 05, 2012 rated it it was ok

The first chapter explains that the author employs a very loose definition of the word fact; in any number of other places, phrases like 'creation of facts' are used. In other words, the book consists of a massive reversal of consciousness and existence.

The two stars are for the only value the book has, which is to give insight as to how a lot of people see knowledge these days.
Hunter Williams
Dec 06, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, non-fiction
Reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell - lots of entertaining anecdotes loosely woven together around a common theme, but not too deep and little "so what" - more descriptive than prescriptive. Strongest in the middle, beginning and conclusion both weaker. Definitely worth reading, particularly good complement to The Signal and the Noise. ...more
Sep 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
An interesting discussion of how knowledge (facts, scientific discoveries, technology) changes over time. Occasionally it strays too far into "Did you know ... (interesting fact) ...?" territory, which is annoying, but I'm feeling generous, so I'll give it 4 stars instead of 3. In sum, a good start on an interesting topic, but doesn't quite go into enough depth to be really great. ...more
Feb 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
A fun account of misinformation and changes in knowledge. There isn't all that much of a unifying narrative though. ...more
Boris Limpopo
Arbesman, Samuel (2012). The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. New York: Current. 2012. ISBN 9781101595299. Pagine 256. 14,10 €

L’idea di fondo del libro è originale e stimolante: i fatti e le nozioni che apprendiamo e formano l’insieme delle nostre conoscenze hanno una durata limitata, non definibile specificamente, ma prevedibile statisticamente, come succede per il decadimento degli atomi radioattivi. Arbesman articola e argomenta quest’idea diffusame
Sean Goh
Aug 10, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
Interesting perspective on how scientific knowledge has an expiry date, though draggy at times. The bit about exponential growth propelling innovation seems to jar against the notion of sustainability, though allusions to logistic curves and carrying capacities alleviate that somewhat.
tl;dr - don't be so sure of what you know.

Perhaps more derivative fields (e.g. medicine) move more slowly compared to the basic areas of knowledge on which they depend.

By their 40s, Nobel laureates are first aut
Jan 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2018, science
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 23, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: amazon, science, true, history
What a lot of concepts covered! Facts are gathered at all kinds of different speeds; they could be important on a secondly or a millennial basis, and how often they are gathered often relates to how long they persist. But it's generally important to know how current particular fact is, and how long it's likely to be important.
He goes into "Moore's law": the doubling of technology available per unit of space each year, and how likely it is that said "law" is likely to hold, and when and HOW it's
Dec 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Time to redefine what a fact is. This book argues how often facts change, not just over centuries but in our own lifetimes. Most of the time we're just blind to them. Is a fact an immutable statement about one true reality? Well, then nearly every fact we think is a fact, is not. Parallels how some philosophies state that we each have our own reality in that we each have our own set of "facts" that we hold and judge the world from. No person will have the same reality/facts. Many will have reali ...more
Aug 21, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars.

I wasn't as interested in the middle chapters so I dragged my feet a bit while reading this, but I very much enjoyed it once chapters 8 and 9 (about statistics and human biases, respectively).

A good casual intro for those curious about scientific discoveries that contradict each other, i.e. "why did they tell us that fatty foods were bad but now they're saying some fats are good for you?"
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