The Half-Life of Facts

Here’s a book I’ll be wanting to buy when it comes out as a paperback: The Half-Life of Facts.

In 1870, German chemist Erich von Wolf analyzed the iron content of green vegetables and accidentally misplaced a decimal point when transcribing data from his notebook. As a result, spinach was reported to contain a tremendous amount of iron—35 milligrams per serving, not 3.5 milligrams (the true measured value). While the error was eventually corrected in 1937, the legend of spinach’s nutritional power had already taken hold, one reason that studio executives chose it as the source of Popeye’s vaunted strength.

I always wondered what it was in spinach that gave Popeye his strength. Now I know. I also remember that he always had a pipe stuck in his mouth.

The point, according to Samuel Arbesman, an applied mathematician and the author of the delightfully nerdy “The Half-Life of Facts,” is that knowledge—the collection of “accepted facts”—is far less fixed than we assume. In every discipline, facts change in predictable, quantifiable ways, Mr. Arbesman contends, and understanding these changes isn’t just interesting but also useful. For Mr. Arbesman, Wolf’s copying mistake says less about spinach than about the way scientific knowledge propagates.

Copying errors, it turns out, aren’t uncommon and fall into characteristic patterns, such as deletions and duplications—exactly the sorts of mistakes that geneticists have identified in DNA. Using approaches adapted from genetics, paleographers—scientists who study ancient writing—use these accumulated errors to trace the age and origins of a document, much in the same way biologists use the accumulation of genetic mutations to assess how similar two species are to each other.

It’s an interesting idea that the change is predictable. But the main thing that I find attractive about this book is its clear recognition that everything we think we know, even the stuff we’re totally convinced about, has a provisional character: nothing is set in stone.

If shaky claims enter the realm of science too quickly, firmer ones often meet resistance. As Mr. Arbesman notes, scientists struggle to let go of long-held beliefs, something that Daniel Kahneman has described as “theory-induced blindness.” Had the Austrian medical community in the 1840s accepted the controversial conclusions of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis that physicians were responsible for the spread of childbed fever—and heeded his hand-washing recommendations—a devastating outbreak of the disease might have been averted.

Science, Mr. Arbesman observes, is a “terribly human endeavor.” Knowledge grows but carries with it uncertainty and error; today’s scientific doctrine may become tomorrow’s cautionary tale. What is to be done? The right response, according to Mr. Arbesman, is to embrace change rather than fight it. “Far better than learning facts is learning how to adapt to changing facts,” he says. “Stop memorizing things . . . memories can be outsourced to the cloud.” In other words: In a world of information flux, it isn’t what you know that counts—it is how efficiently you can refresh.

I can think of a number of scientific doctrines that are all set to become tomorrow’s cautionary tales. I just wonder how people make the change. What happens when you’ve spent half your life campaigning to stop global warming, and finally learn that there never really was any anyway? What do such people say? I bet it’s something like this:

“Me? No, I never really believed all that global warming stuff. I was just a bit worried about polar bears, that’s all. And glaciers. And sea levels. And I still am, actually.”


“Well, everybody always knew that that environmental tobacco smoke was harmless. Or at least I did. But when everyone starts telling you the opposite, it’s impossible to keep disagreeing with them all the time, isn’t it? It creates discord. So I just kept my mouth shut. But I knew all along that the truth would eventually prevail.”


“Actually, I always knew that the earth went round the sun, and not vice versa. But I liked to play devil’s advocate. Anyway, it was all a long time ago.”

About Frank Davis

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19 Responses to The Half-Life of Facts

  1. Dave says:

    Same about the gas chambers?

  2. Walt says:

    Not to argue with the notion of keeping an open and flexible mind. But. The trouble is that new theories and ideas –even ones presumably backed by new “facts”– aren’t necessarily truer than old ones and the old ones can actually be truer than the new. Chronology per se has nothing to do with a progress towards truth.

    My father was a doctor. When I was a kid he did not believe in bringing down fevers with aspirin but in sweating them out. Then came the new idea of always giving aspirin for every fever. Much (historically) later, my father’s ideas and theories were confirmed just as he stated them: Fever is the body’s way of burning bacteria and aspirin for children causes Reyes Syndrome. There are scores of examples in “health care” alone, where the hot new theories, ostensibly backed by “studies” and stats, were, and are, fads and crocks. So too with diet. Carbs R Bad chronologically replaced by Carbs R Good chronologically replaced by Carbs R Bad. Alcohol Kills replaced by the Alcohol’s good (for the heart, for digestion, for circulation) now newly replaced by Alcohol Kils. And Global Warming doesn’t seem any truer than the old Global Cooling.

    Seems there are only 3 tests for theories: repeatable empirical (as opposed to hypothetical or mathematical) evidence. That and the smell test plus the test of time.

    OT: I started reading Ann Coulter’s “Demonic,” the most interesting parts so far are where she quotes at length and verbatim from an 1896 treatise by Gustave Le Bon called “The Crowd: A study of the popular mind.” It’s a frightening and all too true analysis of why transparent lies become accepted truths and how the general public becomes…demonic when exposed to a barrage of canny propaganda. I should think the original would be interesting to read.

  3. margo says:

    Very nice, Frank – the spinach thing is very funny. I grow it in the garden and eat it every day (because it’s easy and I quite like it, and I’ve always believed it was very good for my health). It just shows to go, doesn’t it. What strange and foolish critters we are. Best to believe nothing.

  4. beobrigitte says:

    I take it Popeye nowadays has a sugar-free lollipop in his mouth…
    I do remember being told as a child that spinach was “full of iron” and very good for me. Since I liked the stuff, I didn’t mind eating it. Anything that is eatable is “good” for us as it sustains us.
    We just have a lot to choose from nowadays! In order to “combat” the “fat epidemic” we are told we are experiencing, some people might come up with laws against the multitude of food choices; so it’s back to bread and water!
    To make the above plausible, first we need to tell people that they can’t control; themselves; they are unable to lose weight without HELP and in some cases surgery. Once this helplessness is widely accepted it is easy to impose any, however ridiculous seeming “solution”.
    By the way, does that ring a bell?

    • margo says:

      Does Popeye even still exist? Haven’t heard of him for years. He’s probably been exposed as a child abuser or a racist by now.

      • harleyrider1978 says:

        Well we sure cant miss that Flat Top Olive oil………Youd think a sailor would have better taste in women……..At least I always did!

  5. harleyrider1978 says:

    Study: Smoking tobacco ‘rots’ the brain

    Its well known EINSTEIN SMOKED!………………….This idiot at the robert woods johnson school forgot his anti-smoking histeria laden philantropic arm of Big Pharma johnson and johnson will likely have his job after proving much of their anti-smoking propaganda TO BE A PACK OF LIES!

    Einstein’s brain was unusual in several respects, rarely seen photos show

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      The team compared Einstein’s brain with those of 85 other people and found that the great physicist did indeed have something special between his ears. Although the brain is only average in size, several regions feature additional convolutions and folds rarely seen in others. For example, the regions on the left side of the brain that facilitate sensory inputs into and motor control of the face and tongue are much larger than normal; and his prefrontal cortex — linked to planning, focused attention and perseverance — is also greatly expanded.

      “In each lobe,” including the frontal, parietal and occipital lobes, “there are regions that are exceptionally complicated in their convolutions,” Falk says. As for the enlarged regions linked to the face and tongue, Falk thinks that this might relate to Einstein’s famous quote that his thinking was often “muscular” rather than done in words.

      • harleyrider1978 says:

        Funny how fate sometimes hands you a golden goose right after a nazi dumps another JUNK STUDY out there and its one of their own who destroys the other guys trash science.

  6. harleyrider1978 says:

    Pressure group in smoking ban bid

    MSPS will today hear calls to overturn the smoking ban, days after ministers vowed to eradicate the habit in Scotland.

    Freedom to Choose Scotland – a pressure group that used to be based in a Leith pub – will call on Holyrood’s petitions committee to review the legislation.

    The group claims advances in extractor fan technology would allow pubs and other indoor public places to allow smoking without a causing a health risk to non-smokers.

    Contextual targeting label: Health

    The plea comes after The Herald’s sister paper, the Sunday Herald, revealed plans to make Scotland smoke-free over the next 20 years. A Government target will aim to cut the number of smokers from 23% of adults to less than 5%, the official definition of “smoke-free”.

    But Belinda Cunnison, the convener of Freedom to Choose Scotland, said: “I believe the smoking ban should at least be modified.

    “The ban was brought in because of the accepted view that passive smoking is impossible to eradicate using ventilation equipment. We don’t accept that this is the case.”

    The pro-smoking petition appears to have little chance of success.

    Showing 2 comments
    Chas Winfield, uk 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand It is far safer to sit in a pub with ventilation than to travel in a plane with ventilation. Should we ban travelling in planes?

    show more show less
    Reply 6 hours ago F
    Dr Steven Johnson, Notts 1 comment collapsed
    Collapse Expand I wish Freedom 2 Choose (Scotland) all the best in quite rightly putting forward this petition. You say it has little chance of success, that’s because quite simply only one side (the Tobacco Control side) of the argument has ever been heard, propagated by ASH et al and heavily supported by taxpayers money whether the taxpayer likes it or not.

    There has never been a consultation of any kind – only bullying by vested interests.

  7. Reinhold says:

    As for science:

    Romano Grieshaber, the unwavering German professor, has entered the blogosphere.

    His brand new blog, launched just today (okay, meanwhile yesterday CET) is titled

    Grieshaber’s Science Dialogue

    In German only, I’m sorry (but all the same a language with about 120 million native speakers).

    • beobrigitte says:

      Reinhold, we should perhaps explain a little more:

      As Prof. Griesshaber writes in his blog:

      Ich hatte das zweifelhafte Vergnügen, mich mit einer Rezension meines Buches „Passivrauchen – Götterdämmerung der Wissenschaft“ durch Herrn Dr. Joseph Kuhn, Soziologe und Epidemiologe, Beamter des Landesgesundheitsamtes Bayern, auseinanderzusetzen, die von Dr. Kuhn in seinem privaten „Science-Blog“ veröffentlicht wurde.
      (off the cuff translation)
      I had the doubtful pleasure to confront a review of my book „Passivrauchen – Götterdämmerung der Wissenschaft“, written and published in his private blog by the sociologist and epidemiologist, official of the state health organisation Bavaria, Dr. Joseph Kuhn.

      Initially Prof. Griesshaber’s book was, as could be expected, ignored by the antis as they continued to push for the extension of the, in Bavaria already existing, total smoking ban to the other Bundeslaender, such as Nordrhein-Westfalen.
      As Prof. Griesshaber’s book just “didn’t go away” the antis are now (haven’t others, whose findings did not agree with tobacco control, experienced just the same?) launching their attacks. It is good to see that Prof. Griesshaber isn’t “going away” as the antis hoped.

      • Reinhold says:

        Sehr gut, danke schön, Brigitte!
        (I myself was just too busy yesterday to explain some more in English.)

        • beobrigitte says:

          Reinhold, thanks very much for the link to Prof. Griesshaber’s blog!!!

          I have just read his article about Frau Steffens and her fight to ban the e-cigarettes along with as:
          ENDS [electronic cigarettes] are products resembling cigarettes and could therefore undermine the denormalization of tobacco use upheld by the WHO FCTC.
          I concur with Prof. Griesshaber’s observation that any nation’s health is not the primary objective of the WHO if the e-cigarettes undermine the DEMONISATION of smokers caused by lobby-forced “denormalisation” of tobacco use.

          (Reinhold, correct me if I’m wrong; didn’t Steffens try (and fail) to introduce a law which would allow e-cigarettes only to be available in Pharmacies and/or by prescription?)

        • Reinhold says:

          (Reinhold, correct me if I’m wrong; didn’t Steffens try (and fail) to introduce a law which would allow e-cigarettes only to be available in Pharmacies and/or by prescription?)

          You are right, Brigitte.

          But today Frau Steffens certainly is celebrating with a big pot of green tea.

          Nordrhein-Westfalen (approx. 18 million inhabitants) has a total smoking ban now, like Bavaria, or even a bit worse.
          The Greens along with the “Social Democrats” pushed it through.

          Millions of smokers will be, guess what, exiled to the outdoors.
          Countless pubs will die.
          The Greens just love that.

        • Frank Davis says:

          huffington post

          BERLIN — Germany’s most populous state is toughening a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, closing loopholes in its five-year-old restrictions.

          North Rhine-Westphalia, a western region of about 18 million people that includes Cologne, Bonn, Duesseldorf and the Ruhr industrial area, introduced its smoking ban in 2008 – around the same time other German states put similar restrictions into effect.

          The state legislature on Thursday approved a toughened version to take effect next May. It shuts loopholes that allowed customers to light up in establishments that designated themselves smoking bars, in special rooms set aside for smokers or in beer tents, among other things. The center-left state government said the original ban had so many loopholes it didn’t effectively protect nonsmokers.

        • Reinhold says:

          the original ban had so many loopholes it didn’t effectively protect nonsmokers

          Ha ha.

          Mendacious pack of hypocrites.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Thanks for that. I’ll add him to my blogroll.

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