Facts may be slippery but the most important human qualities remain true

FACTS aren’t what they used to be. When I started school, Pluto was a planet and carbon came in just three flavours: diamond, soot and graphite. By the time I left for university, a fourth kind of carbon had been announced, football-shaped buckminsterfullerene. And, thanks to Pluto’s reclassification six years ago, there are now just eight planets in our solar system, not nine. It’s hard to keep hold of truth when it’s become this slippery.

That, however, is the premise behind Sam Arbesman’s The Half-Life of Facts, which explores the predictable ways in which modern knowledge is evolving. It’s an important subject, and vital, for example, in working out how to keep professionals expert in their own fields when so much can be expected to change after they qualify.

Given the steadily declining half-life of regulatory expertise in financial services, the City and its regulators would do well to think about this more. Thomson Reuters reported in March this year that one in three finance compliance professionals now spends a full day each week just keeping up with the latest rule changes.

Keeping up with the new can come at the expense of the permanent. David Cameron’s performance on the Late Show with David Letterman this week was both depressing and telling. Our supposedly well-educated Prime Minister, all-too-conversant with every modish buzzword, appeared unaware what Magna Carta means.

Some things stay true, including the value of human freedom, habeas corpus and the consent of the governed. That’s because we ourselves remain the same. Iris Murdoch once wrote that “we recognise good or decent people in times and literature remote from our own. […] It is just as important that Patroclus should be kind to the captive women as that Emma should be kind to Miss Bates, and we feel this importance in an immediate and natural way in both cases, in spite of the fact that nearly three thousand years divide the writers.” Old books, as well as new, can still offer lessons on everything from kindness to leadership.

Happily, a very public reminder of human nature’s persistence is coming to town. Goldman Sachs will sponsor a British Museum exhibition from Pompeii next year. Exhibits will include a wall painting of a small businessman, the baker Terentius Nero, and his wife, both holding writing materials, indicating the value the pair placed in their own time on being literate and cultured.

Most moving of all will be the casts of the eruption’s victims, frozen in the postures in which they met their death. The casts in existence are full of human stories that touch us as immediately as the tragedies of Greece or the comedies of Jane Austen. Two parents and their children crouching under the stairs. A man cradling a woman’s head in his lap. Pompeii’s memento mori warns that whatever new lessons we must learn, our common humanity endures and must not be forgotten.

First published: City A.M., 28/9/12

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Filed under Human nature, Liberal education

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