The Half-Life of Facts: Museums as Dynamic Entities

By Claire Layton

The concept of ‘fact’ has long been elusive, it would be erroneous to assume that scientists and researchers in the past put more confidence in the truth-value of facts than we do today. There has always been an understanding of the inevitable overturn of facts and an ever-increasing bank of knowledge, especially in the sciences. This inevitably leads to increased specialisation and some might argue a closer-to-truth potential.

Louis Agassiz’s Methods of Study in Natural History, published in 1863, found among the books in the Study at the Hillary House, addressed in part this issue of overturn of facts. Agassiz was a Swiss-American biologist and geologist who worked in the mid-1800s, though his work is not evoked much anymore due to his outspoken stance against Darwinian evolution. He includes a disclaimer near the end of his book that addresses this changeability of facts.

It may seem to some of my readers that I have wandered from my subject and forgotten the title of these articles, which purport to be a series of papers on ‘Methods of Study in Natural History.’ But some idea of the progress of Natural History, of its growth as a science, of the gradual evolving of general principles out of a chaotic mass of facts, is a better aid to the student than direct instruction upon special modes of investigation; and it is with the intention of presenting the study of Natural History from this point of view that I have chosen my title. I have endeavored thus far to show how scientific facts have been systematized so as to form a classification that daily grows more true to Nature, in proportion as its errors are corrected by a more intimate acquaintance with the facts; but I will now attempt a more difficult task, and try to give some idea of the mental process by which facts are transformed into scientific truth (Agassiz 1863:201).

Agassiz is adamant that science is not a mere amassing of facts, that there is coherency, a honing in on something truer to Nature as corrections and new discoveries are made. He focuses on the methods by which scientific truth has been reached. This, however, assumes that the ultimate goal of ‘Truth’ is something that exists, is attainable and will be recognisable despite centuries of ‘facts’ experiencing predictable ‘half-lives.’

The term we are employing here of the “half-life of facts” was coined by Samuel Arbesman in his 2004 book of the same title. The concept of the half-life of knowledge however can be attributed to Fritz Machlup, from his work in 1962. The term refers to the inevitable expiration of knowledge when met with time and ever-expanding research. Arbesman was initially compelled by the notion of overturn of ‘facts’ within medical practice, to the point where a doctor is never truly finished their education, constantly learning and ‘un-learning’ knowledge associated with their practice. He theorises about the elapsed time within particular disciplines before something becomes untrue, this is different for all fields of inquiry. Scientific knowledge, for example, is growing by a factor of ten every 50 years, which means that half of what scientists may know about a particular topic will be wrong or obsolete in 45 years. You cannot predict which individual fact is going to succumb to it, but you can know how long it takes for half the facts in a discipline to become obsolete.

It is also pertinent to note that there is often a particular attachment to facts that are learned in childhood; an unwillingness to let them go and keep pace with the turnover of knowledge. Louis Agassiz indicates this phenomenon, or more accurately bias, of the disparity between new understandings and the general population’s awareness of such changes. “On the broad highroad of civilization along which men are ever marching, they pass by unnoticed the landmarks of intellectual progress, unless they chance to have some direct bearing on what is called the practical side of life” (Agassiz 1863:269). In showing how knowledge about the world shifts systematically, there is a call for renewed vigilance against growing complacency about knowledge of the world.

This trend is not just related to disciplines like medicine and other commonly evoked popular examples including topics such as outer space and dinosaurs. It also includes matters like childcare and nutrition, things that pertain to daily life. But, no need to withdraw, overwhelmed by the rapid changeability of everything you have ever known! Understanding how knowledge changes can provide a structure to our world. The rate of decay is predictable and mathematically calculable. Just because knowledge is constantly being overturned does not mean we do not know anything. What it means is that we must acknowledge change and recognise that what we might have learned as kids is no longer cutting edge.

In this series of artifacts of the week, we will examine the paradox that knowledge is in fact tentative in particularly consistent ways, through a number of examples right here in the house. We will trace how we come to understand particular things as ‘truth,’ and the importance of critical thought and openness to the precariousness of fact. The mission here is twofold, also acting as an example of the potential for valuable and relevant research within a historical library and archival collection; to not regard a museum as a static entity.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Agassiz, Louis (1863). Methods of Study in Natural History. Boston: Ticknor & Fields.

Arbesman, Samuel (2013). The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. London: Penguin Publishing Group.

Machlup, F. (1962). Knowledge production and distribution in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.