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Samuel Arbesman, Interview No. 1

Samuel Arbesman is an applied mathematician and network scientist. His recent book, The Half-life of Facts, explores how much of what we think we know has an expiry date.

Samuel, who was happy to be the first in an ongoing series of interviews, talks about his book, science, knowledge, and society.

A friend of mine, Neil Cruickshank, helped come up with some of the questions.

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INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

ARBESMAN

I began my training in evolutionary biology and I received a PhD in computational biology from Cornell University. However, even during graduate school I began to think about how to use the computational and mathematical models I had been learning about to help understand society. This transition continued when I did a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard under Nicholas Christakis, where I explored social networks, cooperation, and scientific discovery. About two years ago I moved to Kansas City to be a Senior Scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where I study and write about a lot of different topics, ranging from the future of science to how cities grow and develop.

INTERVIEWER

What was the motivation behind writing The Half-life of facts?

ARBESMAN

I’ve always been aware of the huge amount of information that we learn that becomes out-of-date rather quickly. But as I moved into the field of quantitative social science, and explored topics from network science to scientometrics, I realized that there is a deep order to how knowledge grows and changes over time, and even how it spreads from person to person. I wanted to tell this story in the hope that a reader will find it as fascinating as I do, but more importantly, would come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the underlying regularities behind all of the knowledge change we see on a daily basis.

INTERVIEWER

… When I read about cognitive biases and also the research that suggests for some areas of expertise – such as medical surgery – at a certain point of time the accumulation of experience does not equate to better performance results, I think about how we often defend our opinions and decisions on the basis of our experience, but in fact that experience may just be a reinforcement of error or bias.

In your book, you supply additional reason for me to doubt even those things I may be very sure of. How do you see the connection between the half-life of facts and what this means to the idea of wisdom and the respect we offer to an individual’s experience?

ARBESMAN

It’s certainly true that many of the bits of information we learn over the years become outdated and are overturned, and so we have to make sure that what we are working with is not obsolete. And on the basis of this, experience might be a hindrance. But I think a lifetime of experience and wisdom, rather than simply an accumulation of facts, can often leave someone better prepared for dealing with change. Because they’ve had to deal with so much change throughout their lives, people often have a better sense of the shape and impact of change. While it is certainly true that someone with more experience might also be less likely to change their ways, and adhere to outdated information, understanding the regularities behind change—even if only known in an intuitive qualitative sense due to experience—can provide a mechanism for adaptation.

INTERVIEWER

When I read your book I often reflected on moments when I have been sure, and confident. And I also thought about how I have managed being in time of change. In psychology, one of the “big five” personality traits is Openness. Some of us seem to be much more comfortable with flux, or change, and readily able to respond to and even gain energy from change. Others seem to have a greater need for anchors and continuity with the past, and as the degree of change increases we focus more on and more on the things that remain unchanged, and change itself is fatiguing and depressing. Is there a fundamental disadvantage for those of us who are less open and more at ease with stability?

ARBESMAN

In a word, yes. People who cannot deal with change are going to be at a huge disadvantage in the world. These type of people might not have been disadvantaged in previous generations, where change proceeded rather more slowly, but as the many fundamental changes around us—in what we know and in what the world likes—continue to accumulate, we often have to deal with large numbers of these changes in a single lifetime. In the book, I chronicled the large number of computational information storage technologies (ranging from floppy disks to the Cloud) that I have used over the course of three decades, which is a far cry from the one or two that people of the Middle Ages might have used for storing information (books and scrolls). Those who can’t adapt will have a great deal of trouble in this world.

INTERVIEWER

You quote John H Jackson: “It takes 50 years to get a wrong idea out of medicine, and 100 years a right one into medicine.” I’ve heard teachers say similar things about changes to curriculum. Do you have any thoughts on how education and educators, particularly in schools, should incorporate your ideas into teaching and curriculum design?

ARBESMAN

This is a really important question. I think that we need to move from an educational system that is focused on memorizing facts to one that is focused on how to learn. Of course you need a fundamental background and familiarity with certain information in order to have a basic understanding of the world, so I wouldn’t throw out memorization entirely. But so much of what we know is going to change and we need to have an educational system that recognizes this. In medicine, there is continuing medical education—constantly learning what is new in one’s field—and I think this kind of attitude needs to be universalized for knowledge in general. Specifically, students need to be taught how to continue to learn new facts, and embrace the changing knowledge around them. If that is the focus, rather than the facts themselves, education will be more durable, but will also create graduates that can continue to learn on their own and adapt the world around them

INTERVIEWER

What about organizations… in a world of constant change how can understanding how facts change better prepare us for dealing with uncertainty?

ARBESMAN

Organizations often adapt slowly, just like many of us, sometimes even maintaining a mission after it has outlived its usefulness. A willingness to confront these changes must be deeply embedded within the leadership of the organization, which hopefully will be easier when people are educated to understand changing knowledge. Otherwise, the organization will slowly fail, hemorrhaging the more adaptable people—who are frustrated by the lack of change—along the way.

INTERVIEWER

I was struck by your statement: “ONE of the most fundamental rules of hidden knowledge is the lesson learned from InnoCentive: a long tail of expertise— everyday people in large numbers—has a greater chance of solving a problem than do the experts.”

I imagine trying to promote this idea in an organization, such as an IT firm or a Government Department – where there is a strong culture of respect for expertise – and I think it would be an extremely hard sell. If I can be extreme, this idea argues that credentials or other normally recognized markers of individual status are maybe not worth as much, or perhaps overvalued. Do you have any comments on how the idea of “the long tail of expertise” can actually function in a domain where expertise is part of the status and hierarchy?

ARBESMAN

I think expertise is still important for many questions, especially ones that can be solved in a relatively straightforward manner. But as we move into an increasingly complicated and interdisciplinary world, the expertise we value with likely shift: we will move from valuing those who can solve problems, to those who know different ways to solve problems, or at least those who know how to ask the right questions of a large crowd. Using InnoCentive, or other way to crowdsource expertise is by no means trivial, and understanding the ways that they succeed, as well as the many ways that they can fail, is going to become more important.

INTERVIEWER

How important of a role does diversity play in all of this? If we all goto the same training and schools, and we’re all taught to look at the problem the same way, to what extent would this impact the long tail?

ARBESMAN

Diversity is critical. We don’t want everyone to have the same background and information. At the same time, making sure that we have people who can bring together diverse backgrounds, translating from one field to another—even at the level of jargon—is also crucial, and something that we often neglect in our excitement of the power of intellectual diversity.

INTERVIEWER

For the most part, I find the tone of your book to be very positive and optimistic – a message of affirmation of the value of trying to understand and learn. But I also note your observation in the Chapter “The Human Side of Facts,” where you describe how we seem to come to a point, often quite early in our lives, where we cease to learn. I observe this often, how we feel there is a sense of having learned and after that learning, life- professional life – is really just the application of learned knowledge. I don’t see a great commitment to “lifelong learning” in North American society, certainly not between the ages of, say, forty and retirement. But professional people often have their greatest influence on the rest of society at this age. Do you have any thoughts on what your ideas imply about lifelong learning and personal development, particularly for those of us who are well-established in our professional careers?

ARBESMAN

As I mentioned earlier, I think we need to take a page from medicine and its devotion to continuing medical education. Of course, there is a clear incentive in this field, as lives are on the line. But If we can find ways to better incentivize continuing education for everyone, we’ll be a better society. Frankly, this is a hard thing to do. If we can teach students at an early age about the obsolescence of their knowledge, this task will be easier. But for now, it’s quite daunting.

INTERVIEWER

Changing gears a bit… What authors have your learned the most from and why?

ARBESMAN

I’ve learned a great deal from the novelist Neal Stephenson. His books are generally a set of fascinating ideas wrapped around an engaging plot. The plots pull you along, and in the process I’ve learned about—and been forced to think deeply about—the Scientific Revolution, the invention of the modern monetary system, mathematical platonism, the relationship between Greek mythology and the history of technology, and much more. If you need your mind expanded, Stephenson will deliver.

I’ve also gained a lot from Steven Johnson, who has written many fascinating “idea books” (this term doesn’t quite satisfy me but it’s hard to think of a better description). His ability to weave together numerous concepts that often seem unrelated on the surface and then convey them in a coherent and exciting way is something that is incredibly rare and wonderful to experience.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have daily writing ritual?

ARBESMAN

I unfortunately don’t have much in the way of rituals. Essentially, I set myself a low word count goal for the day (the amount varies based on how much writing I need to achieve). And then I exceed it. That way, I always overachieve and feel good about my writing for the day. And once I’ve gotten a whole lot of quantity, I then pare it down and do my best to turn it into quality.

INTERVIEWER

Say I’ve anointed you as dictator. What five books would you make every adult read?

ARBESMAN

This certainly sounds like an intriguing dictatorship. Rather than focusing on my favorite books, I’ll try to limit this to five books that I think are important for thinking about science, knowledge, and society:

Little Science, Big Science by Derek J. de Solla Price — the foundation for a rigorous and quantitative approach for thinking about how science works.

Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges — Interested in thinking about knowledge and infinity? The stories of Borges are essential reading.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter — from computer science to how the mind works, this book will change how you think about the world of information.

Nonzero by Robert Wright — a wonderful exploration of how the world has become more complicated and better over time, improving each of our lives

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan—Sagan’s examination of the complexity of the universe and his personal approach to religion as scientific awe

And an optional bonus book for my dictatorship:

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown — captures the excitement and process of science. It’s also a great story.

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