Samuel Arbesman at Long Now

October 31, 2012

Samuel Arbesman gave a talk on his new book “The Half LIfe of Facts” at the Long Now museum tonight.  This is a good venue to hear authors speak.  It is quite intimate and there are generally plenty of good questions and discussions afterward.  Arbesman did a good job of fielding comments from the  group.  You can see his presentation style in this short video.

His thesis is that there is an order and regularity  to the way knowledge changes.  He thinks that studying this can help us order the knowledge around us.  Because of this change, we should expect some portion of the facts we take for granted now to be overturned.  He points out that doctors are taught in medical school to expect their field to change and journals such as UpToDate provide this service to help doctors keep track of changes in medical knowledge. (My personal experience makes me skeptical that many doctors actually take advantage of this sort of thing.)

Arbesman takes the position that we would all benefit from this approach to learning.   We should learn how to think and how to understand the world but treat education as a continuing process.  Which is something I tried to touch on before.  Arbesman did comment that it’s better to rely on Google for current information than memorize a bunch of facts that may or may not continue to be true.  This takes me back to the ideas of Madeline Levine who I’ve mentioned before.  She argues that children should do less homework and more play because that builds creativity and problem solving skills.

Another point Arbesman brought up was that there is so much knowledge now, that many correlations can be discovered by mining the existing literature and joining together papers that each solve some fraction of a problem.  A speaker at the CogSci conference in 2010 at UC Berkeley mentioned that many answers probably go unnoticed and uncorrelated in the literature.  One effort to start detecting these hidden relations in the bioinformatics field is CoPub project which is a text mining tool developed by Dutch academics and researchers.  Theory[Mine] does an amusing take on this idea by letting users purchase a personalized, AI derived, unique, and interesting theorem.

Arbesman also suggested that facts in the hard sciences are subject to longer half-lives than facts in biology and the half-life decreases even further for the humanities and medicine.  He mentioned that when physicists colonize other fields they are unpopular and create disruption, but that they bring in useful ideas.  But I wonder if it’s even theoretically possible to reduce sociology to physics.  This is the whole holism/reductionism dichotomy that Monica Anderson loves to explore.

Another point that came up was that while the idea of fact decay should encourage healthy skepticism, we should still try to avoid unhealthy skepticism.  During the question and answer session it was suggested that politically controversial topics such as evolution, global warming, and even GMO labelling are clouded with incorrect facts.  I think a lot of scientists get a little overly defensive by what they term as anti-science policy decisions and they might be incorrectly grouping GMO opponents in with the creationists and global warming denialists.  Hopefully, better understanding of fact decay will radiate out and attenuate some of the scientific hubris out there.

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