Half-life of knowledge is the time it takes for widely accepted knowledge to become obsolete or shown to be wrong. It is an analogy to the half-life of radioactive decay that captures the tendency for well accepted ideas to be improved or reinvented with time. For example, the medical treatments of one century may look barbaric to the next.
The Future is Laughing at UsAncient Roman aqueducts were lined with lead. We know now that lead is a potent neurotoxin. Lead is such a poor choice for water delivery, that such infrastructure seems almost comical from a modern viewpoint. Several historians have proposed that lead poisoning may have contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.It is likely that current environmental practices that contaminate air, water and soil with known toxins will seem strange to the future. It is possible that our failings as an age will be explained by the cognitive effects of such pollutants. For example, pollution may have health impacts beyond those we currently understand.Likewise, today's science, technology, social values and practices will seem primitive to the future, perhaps comically so.
Half-Life by SubjectThe half-life of ideas analogy isn't completely accurate as some ideas may last indefinitely. The durability of ideas varies from one subject area to the next. Social sciences and psychology are thought to have a short half-life whereby half the accepted ideas change every 5 or 10 years. In areas such as technology, half-life may be even shorter. The half-life of scientific knowledge is considerably longer, perhaps 50 to 100 years. In areas such as philosophy, ideas thousands of years old continue to endure.
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