A Fact Check of the Facts…thanks to Scientometrics

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From Dec 24, 2012 Reason article by Ronald Bailey, “Half the Facts You Know Are Probably Wrong.”  Mr. Bailey cites a new book by Samuel Arbesman, “The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.”  Interesting points,

  • Scientometrics is the science of measuring and analyzing science.
  • Scientific knowledge has been growing steadily at a rate of 4.7 percent annually for the last three centuries.
  • With the consistent growth rate of knowledge, it should not be surprising that many facts people learned in school have been overturned with new knowledge, and the relevant question is, at what rate do former facts disappear?
  • In one study of a specific field of medical knowledge, Arbesman found a half life of 45 years for former facts to disappear.
  • Facts are being manufactured all the time, and many of them turn out to be wrong–experimental results need to be replicated by other researchers to gain weight as a fact.
  • In 2011, a study in “Nature” magazine reported that a team of researchers over 10 years was able to reproduce the results of only six out of 53 landmark papers in preclinical cancer research.
  • In 2005, the physician and statistician John Ioannides published “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”, citing reasons such as studies that are too small and that financial and non-financial conflicts of interest are common.
  • Ioannides concluded that “for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”
  • Another reason for the factual decay is that people cling to selected facts, and persist in only adding facts to their personal store of knowledge that jibe with what they already know, aka “confirmation bias.”

My conclusion?  We should be open to new knowledge all the time, and be loathe to anoint new information as fact.  Furthermore we should have a little more humility about our own set of selected facts by which we choose to live.

 

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Posted in: My Musings, Reason

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