2013 Books of the Year: Best Non-fiction book

Best Non-fiction book:  The Half-life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date by Samuel Arbesman.  How often as bored teenagers did we question our teachers, “Why do I need to learn this stuff?  I’m never going to use it as an adult.”  Turns out we were right, in a way.  Knowledge, in the form of facts, changes constantly: medical facts, scientific facts, economic theories, historical events.  Whether due to innovative technology, improved measuring tools, prior human errors or a myriad of other reasons, knowledge, in the aggregate, evolves over time and in systematic and predictable ways.  Arbesman examines these ideas and a whole series of complex concepts such as cognitive and confirmation bias, the long tail of discovery, factual inertia, phase transitions, and logistic curves, but does so in clear, understandable language and using many relatable stories and examples.  His central idea is that the world is filled with “mesofacts” – facts that change over a relatively short time, such as a human lifetime, and that how we identify and adjust to these changes is vitally important.  Recognizing that what we learned as teenagers may no longer be accurate, Arbesman pushes the idea of constant education, whether that comes from helping our children with their homework (generational knowledge) or becoming expert users of online search engines (informational triage).

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


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