Even “scientific” facts change

Even "scientific" facts change
"I yam what I yam!"
Popeye may be steady, but
facts about his spinach are not.

Spinach doesn’t contain lots of iron, the Brontosaurus dinosaur is really an Apatosaurus, and the height of Mount Everest changes every year. Not only does science make mistakes about facts, but what we think of as "true" is not always true. And as we learn more about things, scientific facts change.

In 1870, German chemist Erich von Wolf analyzed the iron content of green vegetables and accidentally misplaced a decimal point when transcribing data from his notebook. As a result, spinach was reported to contain a tremendous amount of iron35 milligrams per serving, not 3.5 milligrams (the true measured value). While the error was eventually corrected in 1937, the legend of spinach’s nutritional power had already taken hold, one reason that studio executives chose it as the source of Popeye’s vaunted strength.

The point, according to Samuel Arbesman, an applied mathematician and the author of the delightfully nerdy "The Half-Life of Facts," is that knowledgethe collection of "accepted facts"is far less fixed than we assume. In every discipline, facts change in predictable, quantifiable ways, Mr. Arbesman contends, and understanding these changes isn’t just interesting but also useful. For Mr. Arbesman, Wolf’s copying mistake says less about spinach than about the way scientific knowledge propagates.

What does Mr. Arbesman suggest we (and science) do?

"Far better than learning facts is learning how to adapt to changing facts…"

Read more: The Scientific Blind Spot. Knowledge is less a canon than a consensus. The Wall Street Journal>>

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