Facts have a half-life, so what chance do you really have of being right?

Most leaders think they are right most of the time. I’m not sure it’s that simple. What if the question of, “am I right?” is the wrong one? The question should be, “to what degree am I right?” If facts (those pillars of truth in our lives) have a half-life, what chance do you and I have of being entirely right about anything?

The Half-Life of Facts

Facts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that Pluto was a planet. For decades we were convinced that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur.”

The Half-life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman

The last part of that quote hurts the most. I loved the brontosaurus as a kid! The half-life of facts is the amount of time it takes until half of the facts we know are superseded by new learning or proven to be incorrect. The half-life of facts changes from field to field, but if I recall, the average half-life of facts is around 55 years, meaning that in 55 years, half of all the facts we know will be outdated or just flat out wrong.

If this is true, and I believe Pluto’s planetary status demonstrates that it is, what chance do any of us have of being entirely right about anything? 

The danger of assuming in absolutes

Have you ever been in a fight with your spouse or significant other, fully convinced you are 100% right, and they are 100% wrong? Then, as the fight goes on, your anger subsides, logic starts to trickle in, and you realize that maybe it’s not that simple? I’m sure there are cases when someone is 100% right, and the other person is 100% wrong, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been a part of one.

Things tend to work out better for me when I admit my part of an issue. Maybe I was 5% of the problem, or 95%, but knowing and owning my part are always a part of the healing process of reconciliation.

My point?

Thinking in absolutes is easy and a little lazy. When my kids come home telling me that Pluto isn’t a planet anymore, I have two choices. I can argue with them that it is and tell them their teacher and scientists are stupid. Or, I can learn from my kids about Pluto’s new classification and why. 

At work, I can come up with a plan, pitch it to my team, and assume that is 100% the right way to go. Or, I can get feedback from my team and keep 85% of my original plan, but adding 15% from the team to improve and make it better.

Even in parenting, my approach usually isn’t 100% correct and needs input from my wife or kids to get to a place where things work for all of us.

As nice as it is when things are simple, they rarely are that way. Being correct and being wrong isn’t always as simple as those words indicate.