Data is not the same thing as information.
As the founding father of information theory, Claude Shannon, put back in the 1940s, data signals are noisy, and if you want to filter out what’s meaningful from those signals, you have to filter out at least some of that noise.
For Shannon the noise was literal: his ground breaking work concerned how to extract discernible information from the signals sent across telephone lines. But the moral is entirely general, as bits of codes aren’t themselves information; the latter is what we extract from those bits.
They are the meaningful leftovers after we filter out the noise.
Yet not all information is good information; information alone still does not give amount to knowledge. But, we can seriously made a reflection on what is ‘knowldege’.
If our purpose is to find out what really is knowledge is to go beyond who in the history of ideas write about it and gave support on the process of reasoning around its bases.
Think on Plato, who asked this question in a famous dialogue from the third century BCE, where he imagines his teachers Socrates asking about why it matters that someone should know, rather than merely guess, directions to Larissa.
Today as in the ancient past, Larissa is a busy cultural and urban centre, nestled in the mountainous Greek region of Thessaly. Legend had it that Achilles founded the city, and Hippocrates, the famous physician supposedly died there. This city was also the birthplace of the Greek general Meno, a man who is known more for having the starring role in this particular dialogue than any military victory. Are you curisu on what was this dialogue about?
Well, near the end of Plato’s piece, Socrates ask Meno: Why does knowledge matters more than “true” opinion? After a while Socrates says: «If I ask some passing stranger directions to Larissa , we’ll get there as long as he has a true opinion about the matter – even if it is a lucky guess. I won’t get there any faster by asking someone who rally “knows” the answer – such as someone that has travelled there before».
This kind of inquiry brings us to Socrates’ line of reasoning: why does knowledge seems to matter so much since having accurate information can often get us to where we want to go? General Meno fumbles about, and uncharacteristically Socrates himself was very quick to braze on this problem an answer, framing it on the form of a metaphor.
Opinions without knowledge – even true ones – he says, are like the statues of Daedalus: so life like that they would get up and walk away if not tied to the ground. Knowledge, he seems to suggest, is true opinion that is tied down or grounded. In fact, Plato’s dialogue illustrates three simple points that are good to keep in mind when thinking about knowledge (what Greek sometimes called episteme, from which we get the word epistemology or the study of knowledge). It is worth to get this point out in front.
Knowing something is different from just having an opinion about it.
Any person can opine, but few can now.
We might put this in another way by saying that mere information or data isnt’t knowledge; information can be better or worse, accurate or inaccurate. When we want to know, we want the right or the true information. But – of course – we want also something more.
Having accurate information (still) is not enough to know either.
Making a lucky guess is not the same as knowing. The lucky guesser does not have any ground or justification for his opinion, and as a result, he is not a reliable source of information on that topic. If you will ask him again tomorrow he probably guess something else. That is why this information is ultimately less valuable in most situations. When we want to know we aspect something more than simple guesses; we pretend a sort of basis for trust. And we are right to act following this principle.
What grounds our opinions or believes matter for action? The old intelligence services adage is that knowledge is actionable information. This one is the kind of information people can work with, as a source of trust. Guesses are not actionable – even if they are lucky to adhere on some sort of precision, but in fact they cannot be justified if there is a lack of ground.
In other words, what I am trying to say is that the process of knowing is based on a correct belief (i.e. getting it right, having a true opinion) that is grounded or justified, and which therefore be the premise for a future/present action.
Nowadays the first sort of knowing is what we do when we absorb information from expert textbooks or good internet resources. The second is the sort of knowing we value whenever possessing reasons or experience matter. And the third is different still, it is the sort f knowing we expect of our most creative experts, even if those experts are more intuitive than discursive in their abilities.
This is what we can frame as the process of understanding.
Understanding, as in our example, often incorporates the other ways of knowing, but goes farther. It is what people do when they are not responsive to the evidence: they have creative insight into how that kind of evidence hangs together, going through the explanation of facts, not just “mentally floating” on what can define arbitrarily these facts.
The process of understanding gain terrain when we now both the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, even if this one is difficult to explore and analyses in all its parameters and traits. And all of us experience this dichotomy in our everyday life, rich in inconsistencies. In daily routine, all the ways we have of knowing are important. But without understanding something deeper is missing. And think about it, the digital form of life we get used to is giving us more information on facts, but it has failed (in some sense) at giving us more understanding.
Most of people sense this and have clear in mind what I am talking about.
Moreover, understanding not only gets us the “why”, it brings with is the “which” – as in which question to ask. In fact those who knows are able to do. But those who also understand what they do, the principles that are the base of the action and the process they follow, also ask the right question.
Therefore, they are able to go further the path followed and find out what to do next.
This attitude of asking questions was Socrates’ special skill, so embedded that the Oracle of Delphi nominate him the wisest man in Athens. And as you remember for ancient philosophy, Plato said that Socrates was professing that all he knew was that he did not know much. Maybe he did not.
Socrates was a master not of knowledge per se, focusing on the entire process of understanding. He was a cognitive scientist of the past, so if we want to study the process of the comprehension and what is at the base of knowledge rediscover our inner Socrates won’t be a bad idea.