DATA is NOT always INFORMATION, nor even KNOWLEDGE
This post requires from us a jump back to the past, remembering what was said by Claude Shannon, the fascinating man who published in 1948 the landmark paper ´A Mathematical Theory of Communication´ and better known as the ´father of information theory´:
Information is the resolution of uncertainty. My significant concern was what to call it. I thought of calling it ‘information’, but the word was overly used, so I decided to call it ‘uncertainty’. When I discussed it with John von Neumann, he had a better idea. Von Neumann told me, “You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place, your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, nobody knows what entropy is, so in a debate, you will always have the advantage
Probably he felt which path he was supposed to pursue in 1937, when, at the age of 21 he concluded his master degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), demonstrating that electrical applications of Boolean algebra could construct and resolve any logical, numerical relationship. And, to be sincere, is not a matter of surprise that his biographers highlighted this achievement as one of the most critical master thesis of the time.
In the years of the Second World War and the establishment of cybernetics as a trans-disciplinary approach, Shannon gave his determining contribution, in collaboration with the American National Defense, to guarantee secure telecommunications and defense from code-breaking. The field was defined as cryptanalysis, and he proved how data signals are far from being clear sources of information, as they are characterised by noise.
What this claim means is that when the objective is to filter out meaningful information from captured and registered signals, a priority is to find a way to filter out – at least – some of the noise surrounding them.
For Shannon, the noise was literal. He dedicated his life – even before what became a groundbreaking discovery afterwards – to extract discernible information from the signals sent across telephone lines. The fact that today is considered not just granted, but even unnoticed in its beautiful complexity.
We tend to think that bits of codes aren’t themselves information: their value is defined by what we extract from them. Within this frame of reasoning, after the noise is filtered out, bits are meaningful leftovers.
Information alone does not change knowledge.
Maybe if we want to be critical about, we can make a reflection on what is knowledge. Following a fil rouge, directing our reasoning on what this word may mean, we have the chance to jump back in the ancient past and try to know better who in the history of ideas wrote about this omnipresent theoretical and practical understanding. Who, more than others, can help us to define thoughts, objects, ways of processing things together, recurring to articulated processing of reasoning, perception and cognitive background patterns, as well as established fundamental cultural structures.
Remembering Plato, one of the oldest and most venerable philosophers who tried to justify unwavering belief, can be an excellent start. Plato was a Greek philosopher who, for the first time, transliterate in meaningful words, depicting his famous dialogue Theaetetus, the question of what is knowledge. According to Plato, if humans care about the truth, or pursue particular care, they may learn the true nature of reality exercising use. To achieve this purpose is fundamental to silence the corruption of our limited senses, leaving them behind, when we are concentrated to use free-ranging reason and intellect.
This ever-broadening perspective offer us the possibility to exercise authority and control, and is so captivating, so bright and blissful, that we seem unwilling to do so, preferring instead to hide out in our cosy habits, or ordinary excuses that became part of our way to intend ourselves jiggling within series of empty, delicious divertissement.
Until when, at a particular moment, we must stoop down, deciding to “contaminate” our hands and mind when we expose ourselves to the outside world, defined by a public, repeated blaze of information. As Plato said, the penalty for refusing to exercise control should be a responsibility of someone “worse” than yourself.
Plato had the chance to achieve depth as he refines his work in a great time when a rainbow of philosophical schemes defined the schools in Athens. Places where ideas and philosophical dialogues gave Plato the right stimuli to imagine his teachers Socrates asking him why it matters that someone should know, rather than merely guess, the 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. The Legend says that Achilles founded the city, while 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.
Well, near the end of Plato’s piece, Socrates ask Meno: Why does knowledge matter more than real 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 set of info that matter – even if it is a lucky guess. I won’t get there any faster by asking someone who really “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 where we want to go? Meno fumbles about, and uncharacteristically Socrates himself is very quick and brazen to offer an answer in the form of a metaphor.
Opinions without knowledge – even true ones – he says, are like the statues of Daedalus: as life. These statues would get up and walk away if not tied to the ground…
Knowledge, he seems to suggest, is a correct opinion that is tied down or grounded. Plato’s dialogue illustrates simple points that are good to keep in mind when thinking about knowledge. In ancient Greek, sometimes this was called episteme, from which we get the word epistemology or the study of experience. It is worth to get this point out in front.
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 isn’t knowledge, as information can be better or worse, accurate or inaccurate. When we want to know, we want the right or reliable information. And – of course – we also want 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 a topic as tomorrow he might guess something else.
Intending information in such a way can let evidence rise, only if “information bear on the truth or falsity of a proposition”.
Therefore, evidence assumes in this context the status of information, used as support to select a bunch of hypotheses meriting to be tested. Thus, all evidence is information, but not all information is evidence. A comparison of data in support of competing conjectures helps us to define what counts as evidence that – in turn – generates the knowledge that a specific overarching claim is valid.
That is why this information is ultimately less valuable in most situations. When we want to know, we aspect something more than pure guesses as we pretend a sort of basis for trust. And we are right to act following this principle.
So, what grounds our opinions or believes as a matter of 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 to some precision. They cannot be justified if there is a lack of ground. To consider knowledge, we have to begin with an important observation:
There is no knowledge per SE, but we always have to refer to something, as an object, a person, a system.
Plato explicit this claim in the Republic, underlying the necessity to name the object or person in reference if the purpose is giving a label, an idea, a code or even associate it with other elements defined by a relevant nature. In other words, the process of knowing is based on a correct belief (i.e. getting it right since the very beginning, as well as have had an accurate opinion) grounded and justified, assuming the status of a premise for a future/present actions and definitions according to true-blue and steady information.
Nowadays, the first tentative to know more about someone or something define our intentions to collect, retain and absorb information from personal exchanges, textbooks or multimedia resources. The second is the knowledge we determine as a value, whenever possessing reasons or experience matter. And the third is even different, being the sort of expertise we expect by our references, the creative and genial experts we associate with a topic or a strand of knowledge.
Reasonable way(s) to intend the process of understanding.
Understanding, as in our example, incorporates even other ways of knowing. It is what people do when they are not responsive to the evidence: they have creative insight into how diverse kind of proof could gently hang together, going through the explanation of facts, breaching the “mental float” of what define events; arbitrarily.
The process of understanding gain terrain when we know both the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ that delineate events and facts. Even if the why is more difficult to explore and be analyzed in all its parameters and traits. All of us experience this dichotomy in our everyday life; where inconsistencies flourish as expected ghosts in our daily routine, the troupes of mediums we use ´to know´ are equally important if we can let them assume a fast uniform depth, without allowing them confusing us with too many unbalanced inputs.
I was addressed by a friend to think deeply about this point, as in our digital form of life we get used to this type of system of exchange and retrieve, almost passively accepting what it gives us: more information despite facts, that if not selected let us continuously fail (in some sense) if our original purpose is a real understanding.
Now, you can probably have some explicit examples in mind of what I´m referring to.
Moreover, understanding not only gets us the “why”, but it also brings with it the figures, the people who know can do. Those who demonstrated to understand what they do, ready to return to their action and deconstruct the principles at the base of the operations and processes defining the theories and the information they followed — the ones who can ask the right questions. The ones that, doing so, go further and establish a path, finding out what to do next.
To consider knowledge, we have to begin with an important observation that there is no knowledge per SE, but we always have experience about something. In other words, learning always involves some object. As I said, Plato was maybe the first to formulate this concept explicitly in his dialogue Republic. However, to distinguish a purpose, we have to name it.
Here it is necessary to remark that a name may be a label, number, idea, text, and even another object of a relevant nature. For example, a signature may be a state of a cell in computer memory.
Distinctions between knowledge and cognitive information imply that the transaction of data (for example, in a teaching process) does not give the understanding by itself: it causes changes that may result in the growth of knowledge.
In other words, it is possible to transmit from one system to another only information that allows a corresponding info-logical system to transform data into knowledge.
That is what happens in “microphysics” where the main objects are subatomic particles and quantum fields of interaction within a length scale smaller than 1 mm. In this context, knowledge and data play the role of particles, while information realises communication. However, the general theory of data differs from this conception of information because it demonstrates that information transaction may also result in a decrease in knowledge.
Knowledge is made and is not something out there for us to discover. Data does not always give rise to information, as we expect, because we want them lead to knowledge or presumed wisdom.
These reflections drop the notion of ultimate knowledge because it is imprecise if detached from the complexity of the context in the analysis. Instead, I suggest inserting the idea of evidence into the inferential sequence between information and knowledge. Data are used mainly as raw material for information generation. When these data are put into context, they yield information that may be useful as evidence. Based on such evidence, knowledge is generated.
Knowledge is an evidence-based belief that is predictive, testable, and consistently successful, as judged by consensus among stakeholders. I hope you like this post and enjoy Sunday emotional moments, a potential source of valuable data.