A wonderful new book called The Half-Life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman makes riveting reading for anyone in the business of gathering information. Don’t let the fact that the author is an applied mathematician scare you off.
Arbesman keeps his examples mostly in the realms of science and general knowledge, and leaves the law alone. But this is a book for litigators, transactional lawyers doing due diligence, evidence mavens, and of course those of us who gather facts for a living (and teach law students how to do the same).
One of the book’s themes is that we don’t know as much as we think we do, for a whole bunch of reasons that resonate with us and some of our previous writing, including:
- Things just change: information goes out of date (measured by half-life). It’s human nature not to want to recognize that. Arbesman reviews the “Semmelweis Reflex,” “the tendency to ignore information simply because it does not fit within one’s worldview.” This is related to its converse, confirmation bias, “where you only learn information that adheres to your worldview.”
The worst thing an investigator can do is to pre-suppose what he will find before looking at all the evidence. We talked about this in Avoiding Due Diligence Failure: Follow Up on All Red Flags. And while the Semmelweis Reflex is often at work, Arbesman says, “our blindness is not a failure to see the new fact; it’s a failure to see that the facts in our minds have the potential to be out-of-date at all.”
- Information hides in plain sight. Knowledge is highly specialized and specialists don’t communicate among themselves. Arbesman’s father, a dermatologist, unearthed an old article about ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that made reference to an absence of bedsores in observed patients. He then came up with a way to measure the disease’s progression (something that had eluded researchers) by looking at the elasticity of the skin.
We aim to make the same kind of connections in our work. What companies does a person own? Some places allow you to look up companies by shareholders and directors, but some don’t. We look not just at a company registry but at who owns that person’s home and office. If it’s a company, we look up who appears to control that company by using a variety of records and techniques. Many investigators and most automated databases fail to connect the facts that John Smith owns a company, and that company owns the house John Smith lives in.
- Lazyness (or more politely, overwork). One study Arbesman cites concludes that 80 percent of scientists who cite an article in their paper have not actually read the article cited.
In “Good Investigations: A Second Opinion on Most Everything,” we wrote about the need to do our own interviews rather than rely on newspaper articles that contained possibly error-filled transcriptions.
The book is packed with lots more such material, though it’s far from just a catalogue about how shallow and dumb people are. On the contrary, another theme is that we are extraordinarily resourceful, and the more people who look at solving a problem, the more likely that problem is to be solved.
By being aware of all the ways we neglect changing facts, we can be even brighter.