Many books question the half-life of knowledge

Is there a half-life of knowledge?

Is knowledge losing value? For years, the theory has been making the rounds that the half-life of knowledge is declining. But is that the case? Or do we simply need a new way of dealing with knowledge? Why “omniscients” are less in demand today than “know-it-alls. And why even seemingly useless knowledge has value.

Let’s be honest: Do you still have a road atlas in your car? Probably not. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that route planners, GPS navigation systems, and Google Maps replaced the tomes in the glove compartments of cars. Today, anyone setting off for unknown territory types the destination coordinates into the navigation system and lets the friendly electronic voice from the onboard computer guide them. However, anyone who thinks it is superfluous to read a map will be proven wrong when the navigation system unexpectedly fails to work during a vacation or the turn-off suggested by the navigation system has been turned into a pedestrian zone meanwhile. It shows that many things we once learned seem redundant at first glance. But it is not.

Why there is no half-life of knowledge and how quickly knowledge actually expires

Accordingly, the often-discussed thesis of the decreasing half-life of knowledge must be questioned. The assumption, first formulated in the 1990s, is that half of the knowledge acquired in school decays after two decades, and half of the usable technological knowledge decays after just two to three years. Given the rapid pace of technological development, IT knowledge is even said to have a half-life of fewer than two years. The reason is that more and more new knowledge is being gained at ever shorter intervals. It is estimated that the amount of scientific knowledge currently doubles every five to ten years.

But does this call into question knowledge that has already been acquired? No, says German sociologist Prof. Dr. Robert Helmrich, who has examined this question based on theoretical assumptions and empirical findings. His conclusion: “In fact, the half-life of knowledge thesis has no empirical basis whatsoever.” In his view, knowledge by no means loses its significance, but instead evolves and changes. In other words, without a basic understanding of topography, navigation systems are of only limited help. And even knowledge that no one asks for anymore ultimately remains knowledge – “and no one can say whether it won’t be needed again one day,” says the sociologist from the University of Bonn in Germany.

“Know-it-alls” instead of “omniscients”

Accordingly, a programmer does not need to know which marketing campaigns are particularly well received by customers, nor does an accountant need to understand the algorithms of the company software to do the job properly. On the other hand, they need to know current accounting standards and tax regulations. In concrete terms, this means that instead of resting on their laurels, professionals must continually update their knowledge. The motto is “know better” instead of “know everything,” which requires lifelong learning and the targeted development of future-oriented skills and invalidates the thesis of the half-life of knowledge.

“However, basic knowledge should not be regarded as ballast, but as a necessary knowledge base that can be a source of error, but also a future solution,” advises sociologist Prof. Dr. Robert Helmrich. He also recommends preserving seemingly useless knowledge that is not currently in demand and passing it on to the next generation. Otherwise, it could be lost forever. “Because what has a half-life is the human being and with him the bearer and transmitter of knowledge,” Helmrich says.

Competence Management TÜV Rheinland Academy

Tobias Kirchhoff

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