How Scientific Truths Need a Generation of Researchers to Pass Away to Be Overturned

Following on our previous post ‘How Facts and Truths Have a (Short) Half-Life‘ and some insights from the book ‘The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date‘ by Samuel Arbesman, one interesting aspect is to observe how much a usual half-life for scientific ‘truth’. It turns out often to be one generation, or approximately 50 years.

The reason is simple: it takes the mandarins and opinion- and career-making professors to disappear naturally for new ideas to take ground.

Two Australian surgeons found that half of the facts in that field also become false every forty – five years . As the French scientists noted , all of these results verify the first half of a well – known medical aphorism by John Hughlings Jackson , a British neurologist in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries : ā€œ It takes 50 years to get a wrong idea out of medicine , and 100 years a right one into medicine . ā€ This means that despite the ever – expanding growth of scientific knowledge , the publication of new articles , refutations of existing theories , the bifurcations of new fields into multiple subfields , and the messy processes of grant – writing and – funding in academia , there are measurable ways in which facts are overturned and our knowledge is ever renewed . Iā€™m not simply extrapolating from this half – life of medicine to argue that all of science is like this . Other studies have been performed about the half – lives of different types of scientific knowledge as well

So if you are in a field where you uncover a new ‘truth’ but this cannot be heard by whoever is the old guy in charge of your career, either you conform, or you have to go outside the institution and use it for yourself.

With a quicker developing world, this limit of 50 years half-life for scientific truth may become quite a problem! Maybe some age limit on researchers may be a good idea?