Warning: Your reality is out of date

Posted on Monday, March 15th, 02010 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, The Big Here   chat 0 Comments

This artist rendering provided by the European South Observatory shows some of the 32 new planets astronomers found outside our solar system.

This article was sent in by Samuel Arbesman Research Fellow in Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School.  It was originally printed in the Boston Globe.

When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.

But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime. For example: What is Earth’s population? I remember learning 6 billion, and some of you might even have learned 5 billion. Well, it turns out it’s about 6.8 billion.

Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.

These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.

For these kinds of facts, the analogy of how to boil a frog is apt: Change the temperature quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pot. But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn’t realize that things are getting warmer, until it’s been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information. We recognize rapid change, whether it’s as simple as a fast-moving object or living with the knowledge that humans have walked on the moon. But anything short of large-scale rapid change is often ignored. This is the reason we continue to write the wrong year during the first days of January.

Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.

Updating your mesofacts can change how you think about the world. Do you know the percentage of people in the world who use mobile phones? In 1997, the answer was 4 percent. By 2007, it was nearly 50 percent. The fraction of people who are mobile phone users is the kind of fact you might read in a magazine and quote at a cocktail party. But years later the number you would be quoting would not just be inaccurate, it would be seriously wrong. The difference between a tiny fraction of the world and half the globe is startling, and completely changes our view on global interconnectivity.

Mesofacts can also be fun. Let’s focus for a moment on some mesofacts that can be of vital importance if you’re a child, or parent of a child: those about dinosaurs. Just a few decades ago, dinosaurs were thought to be cold-blooded, slow-witted lizards that walked with their legs splayed out beside them. Now, scientists think that many dinosaurs were warm-blooded and fast-moving creatures. And they even had feathers! Just a few weeks ago we learned about the color patterns of dinosaurs (stripes! with orange tufts!). These facts might not affect how you live your life, but then again, you’re probably not 6 years old. There is another mesofact that is unlikely to affect your daily routine, but might win you a bar bet: the number of planets known outside the solar system. After the first extrasolar planet around an ordinary star made headlines back in 1995, most people stopped paying attention. Well, the number of extrasolar planets is currently over 400. Know this, and the next round won’t be on you.

The fact that the world changes rapidly is exciting, but everyone knows about that. There is much change that is neither fast nor momentous, but no less breathtaking.

Samuel Arbesman is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. He is a regular contributor to Ideas. He has started a new website devoted to mesofacts, which can be found at mesofacts.org.

  • Mesofact: The “boiling frog” story isn’t true. It was based on a 1872 experiment, and its results haven’t been replicated this century.

    Here’s a story from 2002 about it: http://www.uga.edu/srel/ecoviews/ecoview021118.htm

  • We are gradually adjusting to the notion that our brains are plastic; our perception of the passage of time is yoked to the changing pace of brain operations; our attitudes to what’s important shifts with age and probably partly as a function of our reorganizing memories … I would guess that our perspective on facts as a category of experience would be changing along with those, too. There is much of self-knowledge that are mesofacts. And we’re often the last to know.

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  • antfaber

    Paul Erdos called his festschrift on the occasion of his 50th annivrsary as a mathematician “My 2,000,000,050 Years in Mathematics” because the universe was 12 billion years old when he started and was 14 billion years old at the time he was writing that paper. In some cases, it’s not the facts that are changing, just improved measurements or reinterpretations of the existing data (age of the universe, the number of extra solar planets, number of moons of solar planets, dinosaur biology, etc.) and in some cases the facts themselves change (the Himalayas will gradually erode and will end up looking like the Appalachians, after a long time, shape of continents, etc.)

  • antfaber

    bbot: Wikipedia says that the “Boiling Frog” story does have some validity.

    It may not have been replicated in this century, but the article says that modern biologists are heating the water too fast. If you know of results that attempted to replicate Heinzmann’s results and failed, let me know.

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  • SteveM

    Understood, but the problem is far larger than just new facts are not learned. Close to 40% of the people in the US believe the earth is less than 10000 years old. We have people who prefer creation myths over evolution. We have a society that does not learn the old facts.

  • Re: The boiling frog….Two degrees farenheit per minute could hardly be considered gradual. J

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