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Truth Decay: A network scientist examines the lifespan of a fact.

October 15, 2012

It’s an irony of modern life that the exponential spread of information has given rise to another exponential spread, of books about the exponential spread of information. We’ve got more facts than we ever had before, and so we’ve got more ruminations on how those facts affect us. Does Google make us stupid, or has it given us a deeper knowledge? Is there now so much to read and learn that we’ll never master anything (a concern that dates back at least 800 years)? Are all these facts disposable, such that what we learn today will be obsolete tomorrow?

The Harvard network scientist and pop theorist Samuel Arbesman stokes our fears of information on the cover of his recent book, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. Watch out, that title says: The truth is melting! But the argument that Arbesman lays out (in a set of loosely connected anecdotes and essays) works to do the opposite. He uses math as a medication for this anxiety, to keep us calm in the face of shifting knowledge. His book works like a data-beta-blocker: By fitting fickle truths to models and equations, it promises a way to handle life’s uncertainty and keep abreast of “the vibrations in the facts around us.” In the end, though, the prescription runs afoul of a more fundamental ambiguity: What does it mean to call a fact a fact to start with?

Excerpt of an article written by Daniel Engber at SLATE. Continue HERE

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