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RS83 - Samuel Arbesman On The Half-Life of Facts

Release date: March 24, 2013

How long does it take for one-half of everything we know about a subject to be proven wrong? Depends on the subject. 45 years, for example, if that subject is cirrhosis or hepatitis. Samuel Arbesman, applied mathematician and author of "The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an expiration Date", joins Julia and Massimo to talk about the hidden patterns underlying how fast our understanding of science is changing.

Sam's pick: "The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing "

Reader Comments (5)

"The Brontosaurus is not really a dinosaur" @ 35:15 - NOT TRUE

In 1877, O.C. Marsh described the Apatosaurus based on vertebrae and pelvic bones. In 1879, O.C. Marsh described the "Brontosaurus" based on vertebrae and pelvic bones. In 1903, Elmer Riggs unified the classifications of the two species based on the vertebrae and pelvic bone work. Apatosaurus, being the first published, has priority over "Brontosaurus". "Brontosaurus" has been relegated to a junior synonym. see and

The classification of "Brontosaurus" had nothing to do with its head. Riggs work combining Apatosaurus and "Brontosaurus" was not based on their heads.

The most important point: it's not correct to say "Brontosaurus" is not a valid name for the Apatosaurus. It's like saying "dog" is not a valid name for Canis lupus familiaris. "Brontosaurus" is a common name and a junior synonym for the dinosaur with the scientific classification of Apatosaurus.

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterquirk3k

I’m not sure that Samuel Arbesman is saying anything important with his book thesis. In this interview he tries to draw an analogy between half-life statistics that have great usefulness describing radioactive decay or bacteria death, and tries to force fit the concept into information validation. He spends most of this interview back-pedaling and explaining why the half-life of theories doesn’t remain constant. Well if the half-life of theories doesn’t remain constant, then you don’t have a log curve, and the concept seems rather useless. Half-life implies that the function is deterministic. Arbesman’s explanations and equivocations admit that the function is wildly unpredictable due to changing circumstances.

At one point, Julia asks a very important question about science being progressive. She brings up Isaac Asimov’s famous paper “The Relativity of Wrong” about mankind’s progressing accuracy in describing the shape of the earth. If knowledge is progressive, this renders the half-life conjecture consistently wrong.

Shouldn’t this idea be vetted in professional journals before being sprung on the public? This sounds like much hupla about nothing.

March 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNat Napoletano

It seems to me that there are several problems with the theory of half-life of facts. We don't really have a good way to test it. All the measured offered by author are somewhat subjective we large room for errors. Citations are also a problematic way to assess importance. How many people today cite Darwin in their biology paper? very few compared to other more recent papers. Thus, some strong papers are not quoted because they are now trivial and scientists quote the most recent papers in the field that are the "gran-gran-children" of those original papers. Also, there is a tendency to cite papers from high impact journals and from known academics, even if the best research is done by less known scientists and is published in more obscured journals.

March 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGil
Intriguing conversation guys. Thanks so much! =]
May 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
I honestly just learned that dinosaurs quite probably had feathers and looked and sounded like birds. So this very episode of RSPC has updated my knowledge and reduced the half life of the reptilian dinosaur theory.
January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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