Perhaps the most important factor in considering a university education is that it equips one with a set of facts and knowledge that would otherwise be hard to come by. Indeed, we enter class expecting to be bombarded by a wealth of ideas, and we expect that the information we retain will later prove useful, and remain current. However, Samuel Arbesman, a professor of Mathematics at Harvard, has recently coined a term for a set of facts that slowly change over time, with deep implications for our education.
Arbesman categorizes facts into three categories. One kind of facts are those likely to be unchanged in our lifetime, such as the fact that Ottawa is the capital of Canada. Other facts are incredibly transient, such as the closing prices on the stock market, they change every day. The third and most interesting category of facts are what Arbesman calls ‘mesofacts,’ facts that will change over time.
Academically at least, this means that we cannot rest on our laurels after graduation. Our fields are constantly changing, with new ideas and theories likely to quickly replace what we have learned in school. Arbesman points out that articles printed in physics journals become cited half as often after every 10 years. Facts that we learn about diseases are also typically found to be overturnedovert after a generation or two. We see new scientific studies every single day, purporting to say that a food or vitamin is essential to our health, only to have a different study say the opposite a few years later. The social sciences are also littered with information that we may accept as fact at the time, then obliviously continue to believe, even once it shown to be untrue.
Last year was especially politically volatile, as the US election took place. I heard dozens of conversations where the two sides responded to one another with facts that were simply outdated. This naturally complicates productive debate, as stalemate becomes inevitable if both sides are not up to date with the most relevant information.
Reflecting upon this idea, I have started to see that mesofacts fittingly apply to campus debate as well, whether the discussions are about the outside world, or are strictly campus focused. When it comes to campus issues, students are prone to apathy, and form opinions predicated by old facts about disputes going on between the student body and the administration. To their great credit, campus newspapers and activists are usually up to date about all the latest happenings—the recent changes in the administration’s onerous restrictions on demonstrations being a current example. This willingness to battle against old facts is imperative; because if students recall only mistreatment at the hands of the administration, and potentially ignore new and better developments, student-administration negotiations will continue to remain at an impasse.
Arbesman suggests some ideas to get around the problem of mesofacts. Students should be taught that what they learn is not absolute, and they should expect education to continue throughout their life. Given this, we should be humble about our ideas when engaging in debate with others, as we can never be sure whether our facts are up to date. Additionally, it would also seem to make sense to engage with classic works. If an academic or cultural work has withstood the test of time, it is likely that learning about this phenomenon will not prove to be trivial in the near future.
While none of these things alone can stop the slow decay of the ‘half-life’ of facts, it is important to realize that many of the things we learn will not remain etched in stone, and we must always be vigilant about maintaining our educational standards.