What Do You Know?

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Unless you are a teenager or were recently educated, the answer might be, not much.  Half of what you think you know may not be true.

It was a common fact when we were kids that dinosaurs were cold-blooded.  Evidence today indicates that at least the larger dinosaurs were likely warm-blooded.  Many believe they had feathers.  Bet you were never taught that.  There are nine planets in our solar system, right?  Wrong.  Pluto is no longer considered a planet and has been downgraded to a dwarf planet.  Astronauts are weightless as they orbit the earth.  Everyone knows that.  Not true either.  It is true that they experience near zero g-forces much like a person in a rapidly declining airplane, but, while orbiting the earth, they experience about 90% of the gravitation pull as we do on the surface of the earth.  Napoleon was short.  It is where we get the term, "Napoleon complex."  I've know many with a Napoleon complex.  As it turns out, he was a little taller than the average European.  He just appeared shorter when surrounded by his taller guards, and they may have been an issue with unit conversion.  The Great Wall of China is so vast that one can see it from space.  If you have ever been there, you would know that it is not any wider than a typical road.  Can you see roads from space with the unaided eye?  No.  And, George Washington didn't have wooden teeth.   Most of us know by now that he didn't chop down the cherry tree either.


There are terms bandied about today such as the half-life of knowledge or the half-life of facts.  According to Wikipedia: "The half-life of knowledge or half-life of facts is the amount of time that has to elapse before half of the knowledge or facts in a particular area is superseded or shown to be untrue. These coined terms belong to the field of quantitative analysis of science known as scientometrics.


A book was recently published called, "The Half-Life of Facts" by Sam Arbesman (sorry Tom).  I haven't read the book, but I have read interviews and watched his TED presentation.  Arbesman makes several astute points.  One is that facts have a shelf life.  He compares it to the half-life of radioactive material.  At first glance, it might seem that he is trying to force his idea of facts into a scientific formula.  After all, some facts remain with us over time.  I never thought about radioactive decay in the matter which he described it.  It is rather stupid of me because I had a course in nuclear chemistry decades ago.  We don't know when an individual atom will decay.  It might be in the next fraction of a second or it might be millions of years from now.  Cumulatively and statistically, we can accurately estimate the half-life of radioactive material, however.  We can't apply the idea to individual facts, but, we can apply it to facts taken as a group.  It makes sense.


We can actually measure the rate of scientific progress.  One way is to measure the number of published studies.  Price estimated that scientific knowledge was doubling every 10 to 15 years.  Recent studies indicate that a similar trend continues.  But, some studies can't be replicated, some are just wrong, some are lost, and many get superseded.  One estimate is that 30% of discoveries aren't discoveries at all.  My favorite is cold-fusion.  A study was published about the success of cold-fusion and soon universities around the world were replicating the experiment--only they weren't.  When cooler heads prevailed, cold-fusion had failed.  It couldn't be replicated. 


Not all sciences progress at the same rate.  For example, there is not much new under the sun when it comes to mathematics.  New sciences come along regularly.  Climate change is one example.  Progress can be so regular in some sciences that we can use this knowledge of growth rates to project when technology will become available.  It has been said that the military used the growth in scientific knowledge to predict when the US would have the technology to put a man on the moon.  They were pretty accurate.


The half-life of scientific knowledge can be estimated by how often a study is cited.  Turns out the half-life of scientific knowledge is about 45 years, according to Arbesman.  Half of what we know is not useful after 45 years.  We can't say which facts, but we can say with reasonable certainty that a large chunk of what we think we know today will be proved to be untrue.

As I said, not all sciences progress the same.  Some change more than others.  Social sciences depend on input from people and are more difficult to measure.  The half-life of knowledge in psychology is estimated at five years.  In other words, half the knowledge we had five years ago has either been found to be false or has been superseded.  I would argue that the half-life of climate change knowledge is even less, given the rate that it changes.


The half-life of facts on the internet may be the shortest of them all.


My father was a simple man, but he was also wise.  He told me once that "An intelligent man is never sure."  I took that lesson to heart.  Whether or not I am intelligent is not for me to judge, but that is how I approach life.  I admit that I don't know everything and I am open to the idea that I can be wrong and what I know today may be meaningless tomorrow.  I will never say the science is settled.


Thomas Napers Added Mar 20, 2017 - 2:01am
Excellent article.  I love the fact Napolean was of average height and that astronauts are not weightless as they orbit the Earth.  However, I think you take this half-life of knowledge concept too far.  Most of what we know to be fact now will not be proven to be false in 45 years.  Most of what we know as scientific fact today will be true until the end of time.  The problem is when we are too quick to label something as fact and not base that determination on provable and repeatable scientific study.  Climate change is the perfect example of that. 
Stone-Eater Added Mar 20, 2017 - 4:18am
Excellent one, thanks !
Dino Manalis Added Mar 20, 2017 - 8:13am
Education is a lifelong process, thanks for the reminder!
Billy Roper Added Mar 20, 2017 - 9:17am
Very good article. Public education has failed many young people. They are taught political correctness, and brainwashed or indoctrinated, rather than given facts and told in what context those facts can be understood. I say that as a former public school classroom teacher, as well. I've seen it happening. It's extremely regressive. As with the loss of masculinity, the loss of self-awareness and consciousness of identity has become pervasively worse. That's why I have a responsibility to the Alt Right millennial guys to help educate them on who and what came before them, politically and historically.
Mike Haluska Added Mar 20, 2017 - 9:57am
Not to be "picky", but astronauts are in effect "weightless" (there is "microgravity" but it can't be sensed by humans) because orbiting the Earth is essentially a constant "free fall".  They experience the same sensation as being in an elevator when the cable is cut - only the International Space Station doesn't eventually hit the basement level!
That being said - great article!  To quote Mark Twain:
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so. 
Michael B. Added Mar 20, 2017 - 11:31am
A song lyric: "You don't get wise, you only get older."
An old man (who was wise) said Truth was "Whatever set of lies one chooses to believe in."
I knew a guy who was by far the most egregious user of profanity I've ever met (besides me); in describing someone who tended to be clueless, he said, "That fucking prick doesn't know fucking shit about fucking fuck."
Good one, Leroy.
William Stockton Added Mar 20, 2017 - 12:14pm
Nice Leroy.  Are you still convinced the universe is pre-deterministic?
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 1:02pm
Thanks, Thomas.  It's true that many facts are immutable.  But, we are producing scientific studies that we like to call facts at an astonishing rate.  We thought it was a fact that dinosaurs were cold-blooded, for example.  That has been overturned.  Mathematics is more hardcore.  We don't have to interpret so much.  Not much about what we know about mathematics changes.  I think it is true when you consider all sciences together, including climate change.  I believe you will be proved correct on climate change.
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 1:02pm
Thanks, Stoney!
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 1:03pm
Dino, you are absolutely correct.  More sciences, such as medicine, are pushing the idea today that continued education is a must.
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 1:07pm
Thanks, Billy.  Whether it was staged or cherry picked, I don't know, but I saw a video taken at Maryland university where students were asked simple questions like who fought in the Civil War and who won it.  Very, very few could answer such questions.  You're right; public education has given way to PC and our kids are worse off because of it.
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 1:10pm
"Interesting article, Leroy.  Very good.  Fact is in the eye of the beholder, yes?  What's with "(sorry Tom)"?  What did I miss?  Was that some sarcasm directed at me? "
Thanks, Tom.  Facts should not be in the eyes of the beholder.  Two plus two should equal four for everyone.  It was just light-hearted humor.  It doesn't always come off well in the written language.  I know that you don't always agree with my sources.  No malice intended.
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 1:13pm
Thanks, Michael.  I've probably used similar descriptions.
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 1:21pm
"Nice Leroy.  Are you still convinced the universe is pre-deterministic?"
Thanks, William, and good question.  I still say I am in good company, although Einstein was wrong about the expanding universe.  That was another piece of knowledge swept into the dustbin of history.
I don't believe anything is truly random.  But often what we observe or measure can be described using statistics.  It is like the example about the half-life of an individual atom.  We have no idea when it will decay.  It seems to be random.  However, taken together with many atoms, we can accurately predict the decay of the group.
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 1:24pm
"Facts should not be in the eye of the beholder but there is no way around it.  Why?  Because much of what we've been taught, as you eluded to in this article, is dead wrong.  Interpretation has become necessary, especially of history because he who wins the war lives to tell the tale. "
I agree wholeheartedly.  Unfortunately, we haven't invented a truth meter, so, until then, we have to make our best interpretation of what the truth is.
Billy Roper Added Mar 20, 2017 - 2:35pm
Ari Silverstein Added Mar 20, 2017 - 4:48pm
I think you’re confusing fact with theory with folklore.  It was theorized that Dinosaurs were all cold-blooded but no scientist lived 200 million years ago, so there is no way to know for sure.  It is folklore that Napolean was small.  It is fact that two + two equals four.
A scientific paper can be used to prove or disprove a theory, but only if the study can be repeated should it ever be considered fact. 
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 6:18pm
Thanks for your comments, Ari.  I suppose you could say it was theorized that the earth was flat.  How would you know until you went to the ends of the earth?  How about round?  It isn't round either.  It was indeed established science that the dinosaurs were cold-blooded.  Thirty years ago, if someone asked you, true or false, dinosaurs are cold-blooded?  Chances are you would have said "True".  It is unlikely you would have said, "We don't know because no one was around 200 million years ago."  We believed, I  believed, it to be a fact. 
I wouldn't call it folklore that Napolean was short.  There are portraits with his guards in the background.  The guards were much taller than the average European.  That is one theory behind why Napolean was considered short.  Another is that it happened because someone converted "pouce" to "inch" and the two measurements were not equal in Napolean's time.  We thought we knew his height as a fact but were, in fact, wrong.  So how did we come up with the Napolean complex if he wasn't even short?  Apparently, he didn't have a complex, another disproven fact.
How about George Washingtons birthday?  We have historical records to prove the day he was born.  The historical records are wrong but were considered correct at the time.  It is not folklore.
I understand what you are saying.  I agree that it is not a fact unless it is true and cannot be proved false.  Nevertheless, we are taught things as fact which are later proved to be untrue.  There have been countless studies to prove red wine is good for you, for example, but even that is being called into question.  Just because it can be replicated doesn't mean that it is fact, in the strictest sense of the word.
Doug Plumb Added Mar 20, 2017 - 7:48pm
I agree with the basic premise of this article. Its why I have chosen mathematics and the philosophy of Kant as subjects of study. Kant was generally regarded as true until the "new philosophers" took over and misrepresented his ideas. He is a very important Christian philosopher who has been discredited falsely in the minds of many.  
  His ideas will remain with us for a very long time, once the current distorters of information dissappear - "Post Modernism", "Degeneracy" (nihilism) are philosophies that are silly and cannot last.
  It is amazing how much we do not know about math. You can bump into some hard questions with a "A-Level" intro course on differential equations. Still there are questions in complex analysis. I'm starting statistics and already seeing the paradoxes.
  Fraudulent science such as the AGW hypothesis will soon be laughed out of existence, when we see the systemic corruption in our scientific establishment is as bad as the banking establishment.
  Another myth, the holocaust, will be exposed and people will eventually learn that not a single Jew ever died in a gas chamber in Germany. It will itself be known as a lie as all the lies that have supported it soon fail.
  Hopefully we can return to reason and give young people real education instead of AGW and other Progressive nonsense.
Leroy Added Mar 20, 2017 - 8:51pm
Doug, science will eventually prevail.  One thing for sure, many will be wrong and a few may be right.
Nicholas Schroeder Added Mar 20, 2017 - 10:19pm
So what else do we know that ain't so?
Is space hot or cold?
If it is cold why does the space station have such a challenge getting rid of their excess heat?
All those stellar thermonuclear furnaces are pumping wattage through space so isn't it hot? It's the sun's hotness that warms the earth.
Well, actually it's neither.
Basically there are no molecules to speak of in space. The few that are there are few and way way way far between.
Without the kinetic motion of molecules concepts like energy, heat, hot, cold get a little flakey. Time for some quanta.
99% of the earth's atmospheric mass is below 32 km, above is 1%.
NASA defines the ToA as 100 km. That's 62 miles. It's 68 miles between Colorado Springs and Denver. Hold that image in your mind's eye. That's ludicrous thin.
Mircea Negres Added Mar 21, 2017 - 4:16am
Nice post, Leroy. It sure got me thinking about the nature of knowledge and shelf life of information. Back in 1992 or 1993, our science teacher was giving a lesson on the structure of the atom- you know, nucleus, proton, neutron, electron. Then I raised my hand and asked a logical question, namely "what particles are at the subatomic level"? My teacher said "there are no particles at the subatomic level. The atom is the smallest thing there is". Obviously she'd never heard of quarks, leptons or muons among many others. It's scary when people pretend to be knowledgeable teachers for our youth and the consequences often remind me of the propaganda dished out in school in the movie Interstellar. Knowledge isn't always safe, but it almost always leads to progress.
Doug Plumb Added Mar 21, 2017 - 4:33am
wrt to the atom: Kant writes metaphysics Of Natural Science and talks about the atom as if he were alive today. New particles will continuously be created to explain observed phenomenon. They are not real but only form a model.
  In my E&M class, on the first day the prof explained that no one really knows what electricity or magnetism really is. In my first day in Chemistry in the lab we were given small taped up cardboard boxes and asked to do experiments to form a hypothesis of what was inside the box. A hypothesis that could not be disproven becomes fact. This is the nature of science. It creates usable models, its based on observation, not truth itself.
  Kant explains that only two places to find truth - in mathematics and in morals. Math is synthetic and must only satisfy its own rules. Knowledge of right and wrong is innate.
Leroy Added Mar 21, 2017 - 6:55am
Thanks, Mircea.  Many professions are starting to realize how quickly knowledge becomes outdated and require continual education.  I wonder sometimes just how outdated my education might be. 
Leroy Added Mar 21, 2017 - 6:59am
I'll have to read Kant again.  I wasn't impressed the first time, but you call my attention interesting aspects of his philosophy.   I definitely need a refresher.
I liked the way you described facts.  It was much better than my attempt and with fewer words, which is always good.
Shane Laing Added Mar 21, 2017 - 9:16am
To all. May I suggest you read the QI books of General Ignorance.  Many things in it that we take for facts are in fact urban myths.  The books are a very good read.
Billy Roper Added Mar 21, 2017 - 10:11am
A lot of the misinformation fed to the young has been deliberate, as for example revisionist lies about the U.S. having been a melting pot from the beginning and the Founders having been great believers in diversity and equality. But aside from the purposeful lies, a lot is simply not taught because teachers are too busy indoctrinating in their social lab experiments.
Leroy Added Mar 21, 2017 - 2:04pm
Shane, I googled it.  Right away I found a PDF file.  Looks like an interesting read.  It starts off with a bunch of questions to which the answers seem obvious.  For example, how many nostils do you have?  Reading further you find the answer is four.  Thanks for the suggestion!  Looks like it will be a good read.
Leroy Added Mar 21, 2017 - 2:12pm
Billy, PC is killing our children.  Are we raising the dumbest generation?  Many are smart but know little of the past.  I grew up hating history.  I received a poor education in history.  Most of what I know today came outside the classroom.  Much of what I don't know came from the classroom.
Doug Plumb Added Mar 21, 2017 - 3:01pm
re "I'll have to read Kant again.  I wasn't impressed the first time, but you call my attention interesting aspects of his philosophy.   I definitely need a refresher."
On my first read I thought he was insane. But I read it again, recommendations coming from both family and two professors at school.
Patrick Writes Added Mar 21, 2017 - 11:33pm
Interesting post. My understanding is the food pyramid from 1992 (and it's predecessors going back to the 1940's put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) are all wrong (heavily influenced by a lobby representing farmers growing a lot of wheat and dairy).

You don't actually need to eat much bread or dairy to be healthy. Dairy isn't that bad for you--fattening I think, but carbs aren't very good for you at all.

Carbs like bread, flour, potatoes, rice can fill you up but depending on how inactive and overweight you are, carbs can be quite bad for you--depends on how close to developing diabetes you are, which most overweight and inactive people are close to.
Doug Plumb Added Mar 22, 2017 - 10:39am
re "Billy, PC is killing our children.  Are we raising the dumbest generation?  Many are smart but know little of the past.  I grew up hating history.  I received a poor education in history.  Most of what I know today came outside the classroom.  Much of what I don't know came from the classroom. "
I would echo that. Most would IMO.
Leroy Added Mar 22, 2017 - 1:30pm
I agree, Tom, everything in moderation.
Today, carbs are bad.  Yesterday, vegetable oil and margarine were good for you.  Today, they are bad; butter and lard are better for you.  You can lose weight on an all meat diet.  Who would have guessed?  Maybe tomorrow carbs will be bad for you.  Vegetarians live longer.  So do rich people.  If I had to choose, I would choose the latter.  Yesterday, salt killed.  Today, maybe not.  Do any of these dieticians know what they are talking about?
I do avoid refined sugar.  My dad's second wife became fat as a pig.  She habitually drank sweet iced tea all day long.  She switched to unsweetened day and slimmed back down doing nothing else.  We get enough refined sugar in our diet without having to look for more.  I look at the calories in a soda and think about how long I have to exercise to work it off and say, "No thanks".  No worth it.  Everything in moderation, but sugar can sneak up on you.
Leroy Added Mar 22, 2017 - 3:24pm
Little Debbie Oatmeal cream pies are my failing.  I had to kick the addiction.  But, I did get my fiber.
Patrick Writes Added Mar 22, 2017 - 7:44pm
...carbs get converted to sugar as your body burns it. Very bad (practically deadly) for diabetics or people on their way to diabetes in more than small quantities. 
The 'all meat diet' (or 'paleo diet' which is meat and veggies and fruit) is another diet that effectively cuts out carbs. Most people lose dramatic weight on it. 
The fact is you don't need most foods which are high in carbs. If you think you're being healthy by following the traditional food pyramid, you're probably not actually eating healthy.
Eating a big helping of potatoes or rice with dinner, and sub for lunch, and Bran Flakes for breakfast (which perfectly agrees with the 1992 food pyramid as healthy), you're just consuming a lot of carbs (bread in your sub, bran flakes, your rice and/or potatoes and/or fries, your doritos). 
This is all, for the most part, empty calories which, when consumed in large quantities, raise your blood sugar level. 
Leroy Added Mar 23, 2017 - 7:56pm
Maybe your are right, Patrick.  I still say, everything in moderation.  I treat refined sugar as the enemy.
Leroy Added Mar 23, 2017 - 7:58pm
Here's a fact that I challenge you to disprove:  Almost all integer numbers contain the number 3.
Leroy Added Mar 25, 2017 - 10:16am
I quoted my father above, " "An intelligent man is never sure".  There is actually a name for it as I discovered in a VSauce Youtube video entitled "What is the Speed of Dark?".  It's called the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Those with a little knowledge have a high degree of confidence.  Those with an abundance of knowledge and ability have less confidence.   Someone with knowledge and ability is aware of what they don't know.  Someone with a little knowledge isn't aware of what they don't know.  Psychologists developed this idea from a bank robbery, according to the video.  The robber put lemon juice on his face assuming it would make him invisible when it dried.  You can write in lemon juice ink on paper and it will disappear and will reappear when heated.  The "scientist" turned bank robber used the idea to make himself invisible, but he was ignorance of how cameras worked and the difference between applying it to paper and another body.  A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
One sees the effect playing out here on WB.  Some posters and commenters with a little knowledge make themselves out as a person of science or even an expert when they are no such thing.  Some are experts and are ridiculed.  My wife was mixing dough in the mixer the other day.  She turned it off before the operation was complete.  I asked her why.  She said it was getting too hot.  I felt it and told her it was fine.  I saw she doubted, so I made the mistake of emphasized it by saying, "I'm an Engineer; I should know."  In her ignorance, she laughed.
It's also true that the more we know the more we realized that we don't know.  The awareness of our ignorance grows at a faster pace than our knowledge.
Mark Hunter Added Apr 14, 2017 - 2:12am
This reminds me of the old saying: The more I learn, the less I know.
Leroy Added May 28, 2017 - 11:21am
Here another myth that was recently busted, if you believe the study.  Humans have just as good of a sense of smell as dogs.  Most of us have heard that dogs have orders of magnitude more sensitive sense of smell.  The do sense some smells better but human sense others better.
It has always been assumed that humans had an inferior sense of smell because the area of the brain responsible for it is relatively small.  But, in absolute terms, it is up there with any other mammal.
I once sniffed a glass of wine.  It was magical.  The fragrance remained with me for 10 or 12 years.  It's gone now, but I still have memories of the memory.
Leroy Added Jun 22, 2017 - 10:28am
In the latest study, you might be a psychopath if....
you drink your coffee black.  I'm guessing that it is just an attention grabbing study or a layman's analysis to stir up interest, but let's go with it.
Warning:  I drink my coffee black.  But, it is more of a practical matter.  I used to use sugar, but I quit because too much sugar is bad for me.  I tried using stevia, but it makes me crazy hungry for something sweet.  I am better off drinking it black.  So, I don't think I am a true psychopath.
On the other hand, the article goes on to say if you like bitter tastes, you might be a psychopath or at least anti-social.  I like bitter.  I like my India Pale Ales.  Ku Ding is my favorite tea.  It takes some getting use to.  It's supposed to be good for weight loss.  Maybe it is so bitter you don't feel like eating anything else.  And, the final straw is gin and tonic is my favorite alcoholic drink, although I rarely drink liquor.
What I truly like is strong spicy hot flavors.  The Chinese say you are what you eat.  Chairman Mao enjoyed spicy hot flavors and was a fierce leader.  Shanghaiese like it sweet, so they are gentle people.  So, does liking spicy and bitter make me a flaming a**hole?  Maybe the next morning.
If you follow the link at the bottom of the article, there are other indications that you might be a psychopath including:
1. You are a lawyer or a journalist.  Might want to think about why you are here.
2. You push to get your way, regardless of the consequences.  Hmmmm...
3. You stay up late.  Well, at least I fail this one.
4. You don't yawn when other people yawn.  You have no empathy.  I fail that one too.  There is hope for me.
5. You lack self-control and like rewards.  Do you chase those likes?
6. You like coffee.  Oh, no.  Spicy food is included.  I'm doomed.
Mark Hunter Added Jun 22, 2017 - 7:45pm
I was a journalist once ... but my drink is Mountain Dew, and I'd think sugar would produce way more psychopaths than coffee.
Leroy Added Jun 22, 2017 - 8:30pm
I think you are safe, Mark.  I've never known a psycho who ate elephant ear.
Mark Hunter Added Jun 23, 2017 - 7:29pm
Good point, and human ears are too chewy.