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Editors' Briefs

links image The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date
by Samuel Arbesman

links image Roger Evans

A particular school of thought within sociology has long maintained that knowledge is socially constructed. These so-called "social constructionists" insist that reality is essentially based on social consensus.1,2 In effect, reality, whether objective or subjective, is nothing more than what humans agree upon. Thus, even objective reality, which can presumably be quantitatively assessed, is meaningful only to the extent that people agree. For example, a foot is twelve inches only because we've collectively reached that conclusion. Similarly, high blood pressure is a matter of consensus professional opinion, as are the indications for transplant rejection. Therefore, there are no immutable facts because our interpretation of what qualifies as a fact may change over time.

In his book—The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date—Samuel Arbesman takes social constructionism one step further by introducing us to the field of "scientometrics," which he describes as a "science of science."3,4 More formally, "Scientometrics is concerned with the quantitative features and characteristics of science and scientific research. Emphasis is placed on investigations in which the development and mechanisms of science are studied by statistical and mathematical methods."5

In his compelling analysis, Arbesman maintains that facts change all the time, and even the most knowledgeable people have great difficulty staying current. However, he maintains that facts have predictable half-lives, and scientometrics is a means to understand how knowledge changes. In other words, using scientometrics, we can scientifically predict when our knowledge will change in a way that is both systematic and understandable.

Because facts change, people are uncertain. This is a particular problem when it becomes apparent that reality need not be an objective truth. In this regard, some of what we know changes very rapidly, while other aspects of objective reality rarely change. Arbesman has coined the term "mesofacts" to characterize facts that change in "middle timescale." He insists science and technology are replete with mesofacts, and it is important that scientists and physicians accept changing knowledge as the rule, not the exception. After all, physicians and scientists struggle to discard long held beliefs and assumptions. Systematic analysis through scientometrics enables us to address uncertainty and, thereby, appreciate the fact that, despite perception to the contrary, knowledge actually changes in an orderly and predictable manner.


  1. Berger PL, Luckmann T. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967.
  2. Andrews T. What is social constructionism? Grounded Theory Review 11(1) June 2012
  3. Arbesman S. The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. New York, NY: Penguin, 2012.
  4. See the following Web site link for more information on Samuel Arbesman:
  5. Web site link for the journal Scientometrics

links image Systematic review of predictors of surgical performance
British Journal of Surgery 2012; 99:1610-21

links image John Dark

What makes a great surgeon? Can the relevant skills be measured and quantified, or is it all magic-undefinable? Is it inborn, or the product of our trainers? This paper is a review of three decades of publications addressing attempts to define the attributes of a good surgeon. "Good" in this case largely means successful completion of training, which we might not think of as the sole aim of the operating surgeon.

What did they find? Visual-spatial perception is a predictor of both objective and subjective surgical skill, and importantly, with the rate of skill-acquisition. But it did not correlate with the performance of those regarded by their peers as "experts." Perhaps reassuring for those of us in University positions, academic ability was a good thing to have, predicting completion of training, but worryingly, not performance at the end of that period.

So this is an interesting analysis, but it doesn't answer the real question. Greatness may be dependent on some basic skills, but is probably the product of years of hard work, unremitting enthusiasm, and practice; summarized, in a different field, by one word: "grit."

Open Access Publishing

The future of academic publishing is important to all of us. How long will our institutional libraries pay large sums for journals? As paper publication declines, and we read on our tablets, production costs almost disappear and access can become much easier-and faster.

The open access movement is accelerating, and probably represents the future. This charming video gives a painless but perceptive introduction to the arguments. It should be required watching for anyone who submits or even reads a scientific paper.

links image Separated by a Common Translation? How the British and the Dutch Communicate
Pediatric Pulmonology
Also available at:

links image Susie Newton

One of the perks of my role as communications manager for an international society is that I get to spend a great deal of time communicating with people from all over the world. Most of the time, language is not a barrier because, thankfully, nearly all of our ISHLT members speak fluent English and often have a better command of the language than I do. Sometimes, though, words can get lost in translation and their meaning can be obscured.

So when this article was shared recently with me by the author, I knew this must be further shared with our ISHLT community. This handy "tutorial" offers direct translation of common vernacular in both British and Dutch versions. It is an essential tool for communication, especially in a serious, intellectual scientific community such as ours.