A new book titled The Half-Life of Facts looks at how science is more about consensus than canon. A book review in the Wall Street Journal summarizes the argument:
Knowledge, then, is less a canon than a consensus in a state of constant disruption. Part of the disruption has to do with error and its correction, but another part with simple newness—outright discoveries or new modes of classification and analysis, often enabled by technology. A single chapter in “The Half-Life of Facts” looking at the velocity of knowledge growth starts with the author’s first long computer download—a document containing Plato’s “Republic”—journeys through the rapid rise of the “@” symbol, introduces Moore’s Law describing the growth rate of computing power, and discusses the relevance of Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. Mr. Arbesman illustrates the speed of technological advancement with examples ranging from the magnetic properties of iron—it has become twice as magnetic every five years as purification techniques have improved—to the average distance of daily travel in France, which has exponentially increased over the past two centuries.
To cover so much ground in a scant 200 pages, Mr. Arbesman inevitably sacrifices detail and resolution. And to persuade us that facts change in mathematically predictable ways, he seems to overstate the predictive power of mathematical extrapolation. Still, he does show us convincingly that knowledge changes and that scientific facts are rarely as solid as they appear…
More commonly, however, changes in scientific facts reflect the way that science is done. Mr. Arbesman describes the “Decline Effect”—the tendency of an original scientific publication to present results that seem far more compelling than those of later studies. Such a tendency has been documented in the medical literature over the past decade by John Ioannidis, a researcher at Stanford, in areas as diverse as HIV therapy, angioplasty and stroke treatment. The cause of the decline may well be a potent combination of random chance (generating an excessively impressive result) and publication bias (leading positive results to get preferentially published)…
Science, Mr. Arbesman observes, is a “terribly human endeavor.” Knowledge grows but carries with it uncertainty and error; today’s scientific doctrine may become tomorrow’s cautionary tale. What is to be done? The right response, according to Mr. Arbesman, is to embrace change rather than fight it. “Far better than learning facts is learning how to adapt to changing facts,” he says. “Stop memorizing things . . . memories can be outsourced to the cloud.” In other words: In a world of information flux, it isn’t what you know that counts—it is how efficiently you can refresh.
To add to the conclusion of this review as cited above, it is less about the specific content of the scientific facts and more about the scientific method one uses to arrive at scientific conclusions. There is a reason the scientific process is taught starting in grade school: the process is supposed to help observers get around their own biases and truly observe reality in a reliable and valid way. Of course, whether our bias can actually be eliminated and how we go about observing both matter for our results but it is the process itself that remains intact.
This also gets to an issue some colleagues and I have noticed where college students talk about “proving” things about the world (natural or social). The language of “proof” implies that data collection and analysis can yield unchanging facts which cannot be disputed. But, as this book points out, this is not how science works. When a researcher finds something interesting, they report on their finding and then others go about retesting the findings or applying the findings to new areas. Over time, knowledge accumulates. To put it in the terms of this review, a consensus is eventually reached. But, new information can counteract this consensus and the paradigm building process starts over again (a la Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). This doesn’t mean science can’t tell us anything but it does mean that the theories and findings of science can change over time (and here is another interesting discussion point: what exactly is a law, theory, and a finding).
In the end, science requires a longer view. As I’ve noted before, the media tends to play up new scientific findings but we are better served looking at the big picture of scientific findings and waiting for a consensus to emerge.