Good Reads: Mexico’s rise, Lincoln’s precedence, and tomorrow’s truth
A round-up of this week's long-form good reads include a look at Mexico's competitive growth, the virtues of compromise in multiple administrations, and how facts 'decay.'
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Standing strong and unbending against all foreign adversaries is one of the lessons generations of Americans have drawn from President Kennedy’s “eyeball to eyeball” showdown with Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis 50 years ago. Kennedy’s threat to strike at those missiles risked a nuclear escalation of holocaust proportions. (There is also a movie version, “Thirteen Days,” with Kevin Costner.)Skip to next paragraph
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The Soviets blinked first and withdrew the missiles. Lesson learned. But Leslie Gelb, a foreign-policy expert who was in the State Department at the time, argues in Foreign Policy magazine that Americans learned the wrong lesson. They have ignored, played down, or forgotten that Kennedy didn’t just stand down his superpower rival; he worked a deal. His bargain for a missile withdrawal was not only that he promised not to invade Cuba, but that the US withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Part of the deal, Mr. Gelb writes, was that the Soviets wouldn’t mention the Jupiter withdrawal. They didn’t. And the real-leaders-don’t-bargain-with-the-enemy narrative is the one that stuck.
New facts, faded facts, and former facts
These days, not only is there far too much to know, but much of it isn’t true. Some facts actually change over time: The summit of Mt. Everest shifts a few centimeters each year, for example. And some facts – many, it appears – turn out to be not so factual. The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, a book by Harvard-affiliated applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman, finds overarching patterns in scientific findings and conclusions.
Note first that of all the scientists in human history, a majority are alive and working today. By 1960, mathematician Derek J. da Solla Price concluded that scientific knowledge was doubling every 15 years.
But Dr. Arbesman notes another trend: the decay of what we formerly thought were facts. A review of medical research on liver disease found that it took 45 years for half of it to be proved false or otherwise obsolete. And the discredited share kept growing after that. Another study in 2011 found that of 53 landmark cancer research papers, the conclusions of only six could be reproduced in further research.
Everyone who’s seen Popeye cartoons knows the virtues of spinach. It turns out that the fabulous iron content of spinach is an artifact of a misplaced decimal point by a German chemist in 1870. The mistake was discovered in the 1930s, but spinach’s reputation remains unsullied in the popular mind.
The problem, writes Arbesman, is that “we persist in only adding facts to our personal store of knowledge that jibe with what we already know, rather than assimilate new facts irrespective of how they fit our worldview.”