December 16, 2012

Review Corner

How about a little epistemology, scarecrow? I must admit, it is probably my favorite field. I prize the scientific method as the pinnacle of reason and foundation of our wealth and comfort. David Deutsch elevates it to one thread of four in his "Fabric of Reality;" Karl Popper moves so naturally between it and philosophy as to annoy a good friend of mine who wants "just the science stuff."

If you dig it too -- and you know you do -- you will dig The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date by Samuel Arbesman. My interest was piqued by a WSJ review which highlighted the degradation of facts, how many are proven wrong. The best example is probably a transcription error in the iron content of spinach. One newspaper prints that it has 35 and not 3.5mg of iron per 100 grams -- and the legend of Popeye is born!

That is the hook, but the book is more nuanced and more interesting than that. Like the title suggests, he puts actual numbers around the statistical shift in knowledge: how quickly new information is added, how quickly erroneous information is corrected or discarded in certain fields. Both hard and soft science are studied.

Technology can even affect economic facts. Computer chips, in addition to becoming more powerful, have gone from prohibitively expensive to disposable. Similarly, while aluminum used to be the most valuable metal on Earth, it plummeted in price due to technological advances that allowed it to be extracted cheaply. We now wrap our leftovers in it.
John Maynard Smith, a renowned evolutionary biologist, once pithily summarized this approach: "Statistics is the science that lets you do twenty experiments a year and publish one false result in Nature."

ThreeSourcers will enjoy a long-delayed correction from the New York Times. On January 13, 1920, the New York Times ridiculed the ideas of Robert H. Goddard:
Goddard, a physicist and pioneer in the field of rocketry, was at the time sponsored by the Smithsonian. Nonetheless, the Gray Lady argued in an editorial that thinking that any sort of rocket could ever work in the vacuum of space is essentially foolishness and a blatant disregard for a high school understanding of physics. The editors even went into reasonable detail in order to debunk Goddard. Luckily, the Times was willing to print a correction. The only hitch: They printed it the day after Apollo 11's launch in 1969. Three days before humans first walked on the moon, they recanted their editorial with this bit of understatement: Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

Maybe they'll get around to Walter Duranty and the Ukraine Famine someday...

But this is five stars for certain. Just enough math, non-political but serious to deflect the bad arguments of junk science, and an entertaining read.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at December 16, 2012 12:27 PM
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