Insights into the forces shaping our industry.

Facts are Frustrating


A few years ago, I read a book titled the Half-Life of Facts*. It was an interesting, although a bit arcane review of centuries of known ‘facts’ that have been subsequently debunked as untrue.

From the fact that Earth was once the center of the universe, that eggs are good for you (or bad for you), smoking is good for you, to the actual number of chromosomes and definition of what a ‘planet’ is (Pluto failed), all have changed their classification as ‘fact’ due to the constant growth in science. As a couple of examples of the trend in science and ‘facts’, the author reports on the list of 187 extinct animals in 2010, where researchers found that over a third of them have been ‘discovered’ alive and well. Another review of scientific literature for medical research revealed that over time about half of the research reported as ‘fact’ was later debunked in a matter of 3-5 decades.

We recently ran an industry-specific survey on how HR departments or companies in general are reacting to the change in marijuana laws. With 28 states allowing medical use of the drug and 8 allowing recreational use, there is a seriously lagging legal definition of how to interpret drug laws across the country. For example, if you live in a state where pot is illegal, but one of your employees visits CA or CO and legally ‘partakes’ in the state-defined legal drug… how strict is your company in potentially disciplining that employee, should they return to your state and be drug-tested positive for marijuana? What if that ‘employee’ is a job applicant who lives in CO and will work for you in CO? And the change in pot laws have largely been driven through the advance of science on the medical benefits of the drug, plus the debunking of the long-held ‘fact’ that marijuana is the gate-way drug into opiates and heroin. You can check out the actual results of that survey here.


And then it occurs to me how many of the most basic facts of life have changed over the past 40-50 years ago. If we took a government census in 1960, we would have checked off categories that are simple and straight-forward:

Race: Black, White, Asian, Native American, etc.

Gender: Male, Female.

Employment: full-time, part-time, unemployed.

And then there was Tiger Woods; Asian, Black, Caucasian.

And now there’s gender ‘continuum’.

And employment can be virtual, full and part-time; all at the same time.


Facts change for many reasons:

1) The tools of measurement have expanded and become more accurate; so that we now know that the ‘fact’ of Mt. Everest’s height has ‘changed’.

2) Science as a discipline has changed from a methodical practice of test and re-testing hypotheses, to a race to document and publish a finding, with limited re-testing and validation. Additionally, scientists tend to replicate one another’s citations in their papers without necessarily validating those citations. (e.g. 46 vs 48 chromosomes)

3) Interpretations of facts are subject to personal biases; it is no surprise to anyone that watching a political news story reported on Fox versus MSNBC often has exact opposite reports of the same facts.

4) We have now arrived where fake news stories are commonplace and a revenue stream for their creators.


I’ve often joked that kids have a tougher time learning because they have a lot of more stuff to learn than we did at their age. In fact, that’s true, as science accrues exponentially every year, not linearly, so the process of wading through that mass of information and winnowing it down into a manageable lesson plan for students is a significant challenge. And adding to the challenge is the definition of which ‘facts’ are, in fact, factual; complicates life.

From a societal view, it doesn’t surprise me that the recent election exposed a large number of people who are simply angry at the changes in society. The desire to return to a simpler life is an expression of frustration with the pace of change. And my best advice for those who are unwilling to adapt to change?

I’m sorry, I have no advice. We’ve only been on Earth for 200,000 years or so… and there’s so little we actually know. Life is learning.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa and Thank You for a wonderful year. 2017 is around the corner… what a great chance to learn anew.


*Book: Half-Life of Facts by author Samuel Arbesman can be found here