Business Unusual

Half this article will no longer be true in the future

You know smoking is harmful to your health, you understand that vaccines are good and you are not aware of negative impacts from mobile phone radiation.

At least, I hope so. While there is no dispute about smoking anymore, it was contested in the past and originally it was thought smoking had medical benefits.

Likewise, vaccines are safe and necessary, but some still hold out that they might not be.

Mobile phones were once feared and are still a source of concern for some. In time it will be shown either to be completely safe or there will be clarity about under what circumstances there are indeed risks with certain levels of exposure.

The above is an illustration of the process by which we come to know things.

How we discover new facts and discredit old ones

Luck was the principal form once upon a time; eventually we began examining the things we knew we did not know. After even more time this was refined to become the scientific method.

You begin with something you have observed or strongly believe. You then consider the circumstances that would explain it - your hypothesis. You then devise a series of tests that would support or discredit your hypothesis. The data from the tests would leave you with evidence with which you formulate a theory to explain your observation. That theory needs to be tested by others to see if the results match. Repeated tests with the same results by many different people adds credibility to your theory which in time will be accepted as the best explanation for a given observation. It does not make it an undisputable fact, just the best and most appropriate proxy for a fact we have. This, at least, is a simple explanation of it - a fuller understanding of it will help you significantly with what lies ahead.

I can’t comment about other languages, but English uses fact as a synonym for truth and truth is not supposed to change.

However, English is not subject to the scientific method and so our language itself leads us to regard things that are highly probable as an absolute truth, which sometimes is not true.

This is made even more complex with our relationship with religion. Generally, a central strength of religion is its surety and steadfastness, things don’t change much in religion and it does not welcome being challenged.

The Information Age

Yet, we live in an information society. A phrase popularised in the 60s when an economist Fritz Machlup began looking at knowledge as an economic resource. Like any resource it is produced, output is measured and a price is associated with quality and volume.

But knowledge production does not allow for you to declare the same “fact” everyday. It must be new, it must advance our understanding and in so doing relegate or make previous knowledge obsolete.

It is not a smooth process and we don’t know which theories will remain true. What is known is that over a given period a certain percentage will no longer be true.

The field being studied, and how groundbreaking the observation is, will determine the period of time when half of the known information will no longer be considered true.

This the half-life of knowledge and was the title of Machlup’s book on the subject.

The half-life of facts

Since then studies have looked at different industries and calculated the half-life of the facts unique to then. The results are not comforting for those who religiously adhere to “known” facts.

In one respect, we are very happy to accept the constant and often rapid change. You know that you need to keep refreshing your knowledge about latest thinking and best practices for your profession, yet we assume nothing else should change outside of that.

If you work in manufacturing, you know better machines and processes will be developed, but when asked how many genders there are you might think it crazy that the answer is no longer just two.

How it affects everything

This presents some obvious and significant issues. Most industries have progressed to the point that knowledge production is now so high that half their practices and accepted facts are outdated in a decade.

It is fair to say that South Africa struggles to prepare young people for what they need to know now and that the prospect of them in effect never stopping learning is going to be a real challenge for many.

Likewise; for those who have spent a fair chunk of their careers with only gradual changes will find the body of knowledge that once was the envy of others is now a liability.

This is part of why the World Economic Forum is so concerned about the fourth industrial revolution which we are currently entering. The pace at which machines can develop new methods and practises will not only challenge us, we may be unable to keep pace.

Just a thought

Another factor that our belief in what we thought were facts, and unwillingness to accept that things change, relates to politics and the economy. So many debates are still grounded in political and economic theory that, thanks to technological advances, simply don’t apply anymore. Part of the support for a Brexit vote is a belief that economies can operate independently. The reality is closer to the model of a multi-national company with influence, dependence and value coming from many and often remote locations. This very diversity offers an opportunity to react to changes that otherwise may have put it out of business.

Countries are no longer singular blocks of similar people, but an ever changing mix of people arriving and leaving for many reasons.

US conservative politics is in part a reaction to the open, unsure and dependent nature of modern trade. Some US citizens no longer feel they are a world power and want to return to what they believed were American values. They no doubt were, and in many places still are, but enough has changed that it will never be the same again. Those unable or unwilling to change were swept up by the promise to somehow return the US to those times.

It is a little unfair to only use the UK or the US, the same applies to South Africa and all countries.

Don't get attached to facts, get attached to testing them.

Trying to replicate something from the past or even becoming the best version of the present without consideration for the internal and external factors that would or would not allow it will fail.

South Africa will change because everything does and a good indicator of how well we will manage that change will be our willingness to question our current practices and change the ones that are no longer valid. Even harder; embrace the reality of what an information society will need when navigating a global revolution we can no longer stop.

Sam Arbesman explains some well known examples to illustrate the half-life of facts.

Explore more about Samuel Arbesman

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