Daily Archives: 08/14/2012

The difference between knowledge and information

People often assume that just because someone has managed to go through the perils of a university education and managed to get some sort of degree, they are likely to be intelligent, wise and knowledgeable.

So many times I have heard people appeal to this type of authority fallacy I felt compelled to clarify this misunderstanding.

Dr. X said something pretty stupid, but because he has a degree from the University of Behind the Sunset, then he must surely know what he is talking about.

Such pronouncements are often directed towards people that hold degrees in Engineering or Medicine. These are courses that provide a considerable amount of information useful to do or fix things. In a way, medical doctors (of humans or animals) are a sort of engineers of the body. They identify failures and try to fix it. However the course syllabus is not designed to make students think about issues beyond their areas of speciality. Very few are challenged to discuss the meaning of life or existentialist questions in such courses. Their education is technical and is totally geared up to create an out-put of practical problem solvers. Some students, however, may search for the answer to such complex questions outside the course boundaries, while others are perfectly satisfied with the information acquired during their rapid path through the university.

Another misunderstanding often held by the general public (and unfortunately many academics) is the belief that just because Dr X published 345 papers and one or two books, he may be an authority holding much knowledge.

Well, any idiot can publish a book, providing there is a publisher willing to print and sell it and a range of similar idiots willing to read it. You can either publish about 367 ways of skinning a cat to complex theories about the power of crystals. Among so many published books, there will be of course, a handful that are serious and provide reliable information, or considerable knowledge. My point is that the publication list of an individual is not a reliable measurement for his level of knowledge.

I have seen many CVs with a range of publications which not contributed little to the advancement of science and much less for the advancement knowledge. They may provide information, state the obvious or confirm what other academics suggested before, but they do not necessarily increase the amount knowledge in the world.

The heart of my argument is to make a distinction between information acquisition and knowledge.

Philosophers have debated for centuries the meaning of knowledge and it is not my intention to review the oceans of literature produced to deal with such complex matter. My goal is to claim that just because someone has a degree, it does not immunise him from being a big “ignoranimus”.

Having a data-base of information stored in your mind is not the same has having knowledge. You may have that information and not know what to do with it. On the other hand, some people may not have so much information and still manage to acquire a considerable amount of knowledge. So what is the difference?

To behold knowledge one needs to think critically about the information that competing for our attention. Knowledge in this sense is associated with wisdom, analytical power, critical thinking, and intelligent reasoning.

In philosophy, the word knowledge is usually defined as “justified true belief”. This was the definition suggested by Plato in classical Greece, which held fast until some twenty century philosophers began to question it.

Plato’s definition brings us into a dense forest of complex concepts because it is not easy to determine when a belief is justified and much less to determine when it is true. To complicate things, there is no clear definition of truth.

In my argument I want to make things artificially simple and I’ll take the word “knowledge” as the ability to think critically about the information we decide to accept as plausible.

To acquire knowledge is something that few university courses consider in the curricula. They fill up the student’s brains with information, but during the process there is little time to reflect on how that information was acquired, if it is reliable or plausible. University education becomes then an information gathering process where each piece of information is taken as an unquestionable fact and sometimes even a dogma.

Once in a while some students may rebel against this state of affairs and dare to question their masters. But they will be quickly badged as trouble makes and often ostracised by the system labelled persona non grata. Universities become mind shaping intensive production plants, where the naïve minds of dream seeking youths gets moulded into the levelled evenness of the organisations that shape them. This academic fast production line prevents the inclination of some to search for knowledge creating instead information storing automata.

This brings me to issue about science and religion.

Very often I hear people claiming that so and so is an engineer, a molecular biologist, a medical doctor, or a rocket scientist and he believes on this and that God or follows this and that religion. This is the typical fallacy known as “appeal to authority”. Just because someone acquired a certain level of information about a particular technical issue, does not necessarily mean that his expertise also extends to the understanding of other areas that require similar expertise, as for example evolution, the origin of life or astrophysics.

I am sure most of you would agree that just because I hold a PhD in animal behaviour, it does not give me the credentials to assess the truth of claims about the nature of black holes or relativity theory. I may resort to pop science books to seek a crude understanding of how the universe works bending my mind into mental contortionism in order to understand how space curves and time bends. These are totally counterintuitive concepts that I am ready to dismiss like non-sense… but how am I to argue? I have no expertise to understand it much less to counter-argue.

However, I can say with some security, that I am ready to challenge anyone about erroneous perceptions of evolutionary mechanisms. After all I spent over 10 years studying the evolution behaviour, this would have provided me with some baggage to argue my case.

Now, if you agree that I do not have the necessary background to make any pronouncements on theoretical astrophysics and its truth or falsehood, what makes you think that some people who have degrees in engineering, economics, theology, or even pathology have the necessary know-how to pronounce themselves about the origin of life c and the complex natural mechanisms that shaped evolution?

Some people would claim that they have such and such degree and they are believers in the power of heir divinity to create life, the universe and everything…. This is a non-sequitur –another form of logical fallacy. Just because they have a degree in a particular field of expertise it does not equip them to critically address the mechanisms that influenced the origins and evolution of life.

To say that “ I am an engineer and a believer” is as valid as to say that I am Portuguese and I have gremlins living in my garden pond. One does not follow from the other. The information and technical knowledge one gains from being an engineer contributes little or nothing to assess the plausibility of a belief in a metaphysical divinity.

To have a degree is not synonym of knowledge. And to be able to question the plausibility of our own beliefs requires much courage and knowledge.

Any person willing to invest a bit of time acquiring and memorizing information can have a university degree. You just need persistence and a lot of patience to study for long hours so you can pass the exams. A degree is not a sign of knowledge, much less of wisdom, and does not have much influence in determining what types of myths do we choose to follow.
I see no difference between an engineer who has chosen to believe in the healing power of crystals, a biochemist that choses to belief in the powers of the flying spaghetti monster in predicting the future, or a doctor that believes in the power of prayer to a divinity to cure his patients. [Actually I must confess I would feel very uncomfortable to trust my body to a surgeon that relies on the power of a deity to cure me. If the surgeon does not trust his own skills, I am certainly in danger of becoming prey of hazard! It is like driving a car with closed eyes hoping God will guide you through the bends of the road]. The aforementioned beliefs share a common feature; they are impossible to justify as true.

A knowledgeable person is one that is carefully submits their beliefs to the critical scrutiny of deductive and inductive reasoning. A knowledgeable person would be aware that there are very few truths we would be willing to give our lives for. In the words of Bertrand Russell “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong”.

So what is the point of this whole argument? Very simple; avoid appeals to authority to justify your own beliefs, especially if these so called authorities are flashing diplomas and certificates in areas that have little relation to your belief system. Instead of resorting to experts irrelevant to your cause ask yourself if there is any rational justification to support your beliefs and take them as true.