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Why You Can't Trust What You Know

A Skimmer's Guide to The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, by Samuel Arbesman.

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The book: The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, by Samuel Arbesman; Current.

The big idea: Much of what we consider fact--because we learned it in school or read it in a book--is no longer true. Science advances, and measurement techniques improve.

The backstory: Arbesman is a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science, which creates analytical tools for researchers.

If you read nothing else: Chapter Seven explains how breakthrough discoveries, though they seem to spring from nowhere, can be anticipated by monitoring smaller, regular changes. Chapter Eight recounts how the refinement of measurement has led to an awareness of errors and changing facts. (Who knew the location and height of Mount Everest are constantly shifting?)

We hold these truths: Though facts refuse to sit still, decision makers can stay fresh by reading omnivorously and questioning long-held assumptions. Arbesman disputes the popular argument that, by rendering information easily retrievable, the Internet is making us dumb. Would you rather consult your dusty memory vaults or online data baked fresh daily?

Rigor rating: 9 (1=Who Moved My Cheese?; 10=Good to Great). The book claims most scientists cite academic papers in their work without having read them. Arbesman appears to have read a library's worth of papers on a variety of subjects.

IMAGE: Kelly Kollar
Last updated: Nov 1, 2012

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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