Data versus Knowledge

“How do you know so much?” This is a question I hear fairly often. I have a very broad but shallow knowledge base, with a few deeper sections (certain fields of history, geology and physical geography, German language). That’s knowledge, not data. It is built on decades of acquiring information both deliberately and accidentally.

Today, those with internet access, or even access to a decent public library, have an amazing amount of data flowing free for the taking. But all that data seems more and more to interfere with getting knowledge. So much material of varying quality but enormous quantity flows across our screens and over the pages of our books and journals that building knowledge from that flood has become very difficult.

First, you have to be curious about “Why” and “What else?” That requires digging deeper, and being willing to tease apart different threads of information. My parents were (and are) the sort to hand Sib and I a book, or to say, “Why do you think it does [that]?” when we asked questions. So I learned research early on. Having a large household library helped, even if some of the books didn’t make sense (radiographic physics, anyone?). I nibbled widely and sorted out what interested me, what was useful, and what I didn’t bother with. There’s not much I won’t bother with at least once.

That gave me a foundation to build on. I stayed curious, reading and turning over rocks during my career as a pilot. Once I got to grad school, I kept reading outside my field, much to the frustration of the faculty. I was supposed to specialize and stay there. It . . . didn’t work like that. I was reading about the Airs above the Ground and ancient Greek horsemanship, which led to the Anabasis and military history, instead of sticking with just the monographs I’d been assigned for that week. Hey, I had a huge academic library and a three-month check-out time! Nerd paradise, yes? I carted home science, psychology, archaeology, history, ethnography, hydrology, you name it. (I also discovered that three volumes of bound academic journals were the absolute maximum I could schlep at one go. They weighed around 45 pounds. I weighed 120 pounds or so. My backpack was not meant for that sort of load. Neither were my knees.)

Over *coughcough* years I have built up a huge mental reference database. That lets me pull data together into knowledge. Right now I’m finishing up another collection of academic papers about the Cucuteni-Tripylia culture for the next two Familiars books. I am reading about magnetic anomaly detection and mapping, C14 dating and chronology, population density calculations, carrying capacity and landscape change, and so on. All of which I know enough about to be able to evaluate the papers and their conclusions. I’m not a specialist. I’m not an archaeologist. I’ve just read a lot and seen a lot of museum stuff.

I’ve been called the brightest person on the faculty at Day Job. I’m not, not by a long shot. I’m probably the most widely read, however. So I know where to look for what I need or want. I can sort out if the data fit what I know, and that, I think, is true knowledge.


17 thoughts on “Data versus Knowledge

  1. Yeah… having knowledge and understanding allows you to have a reality filter, so you can check incoming data against your own knowledge and re-evaluate either or both as necessary. Too many people can only check incoming data against what the Party is telling them this week.
    Then, too, you can use it to construct coherent fiction.

  2. To dabblers, dilettantes, and autodidacts everywhere!
    (Hoists a glass of applejack)
    Alas, the one thing I seem unable to learn, is to keep my mouth shut.
    Especially when someone is *wrong*, and is passing on information that will cause problems for the listeners if they accept the information at face value!
    (Evidently, telling people things is largely about conveying status, not helping others pursue truth. I’m pretty sure understanding this would be very depressing.)

  3. Data assemble into information.
    Information with structure becomes knowledge.
    Knowledge with reference points becomes wisdom.

    Each step takes different time and skills, and ability to work it without distraction.

    And WRT to data and data sciences, like Noah prayed at about Day 39,:”… and PLEASE turn off the water!” More succinctly: “Squirrel!”

  4. Growing up an often heard statement was “Let’s look that up in the encyclopedia”. đŸ˜€

  5. If one can read quickly, and if one is good at figuring out a first pass BS filter, there’s no reason why one should restrict oneself to reading in a very narrow field, and every reason why one should not.

    Also, in a world full of data, synthesis is a valuable skill. It often turns out that X and Y are not outside the field, after all. You can’t even study a field without looking around and tracing the various paths that run through it, and why certain crops are grown or not grown, and why certain livestock are raised or not raised, and why there are hedges, and what the fenceposts were made of, not to mention the overhead drone analysis of growth patterns….

  6. It’s just so much fun to find out how this piece here is connected to that piece, over there, and they’re both tied to a third piece way the heck over on the other side!

    • Nexialism.

      I always enjoyed reading about this and that and t’other, and how they all connect, but it wasn’t til I read Voyage of the Space Beagle that I discovered that had a name.

  7. Lifetime learning is a joyous habit but, wow, you blow me away. I’m glad you have the energy and disposition to be a teacher. I hope your students recognize and follow your example.

  8. One other aspect of data vs knowledge is that in order to analyze things, which is to say, make connections between bits of data, the data has to be in.your.head. This is why looking things up but neveer keeping them doesn’t create knowledge. Daniel Willingham (sp?) wrote a book called Why Don’t Students Like School. He discussed this concept clearly and it is fascinating. It explains why the more you know the more you can know.

    • Bad assumption built into that– there’s nothing about looking things up that prevents it being saved.

      Four possible states:

      Memorize Successfully, Memorize Unsuccessfully, Look up and Remember, Look up and Forget.

      MS and LR both can have items in your head to get connections– but MS requires that what you have the memorized thoughts at top, and have the time to think about it in order to make connections. Even with a leg up that MS works by finding a means to connect the information for retrieval. LR only requires that you have access to the ability to look things up when curiosity or a thought occurs to you. The advantage of MS is that it is always at hand; as the restrictions on “go and look” keep dropping, that advantage is worth far less.

      It’s basically the same dynamic as contacting an expert vs doing your own research. If it’s hard to do research– material and knowledge access– then asking an expert is better. If you know enough to know what questions to ask, and have access to the material, then doing your own research avoids repeating bad assumptions or the expert falling into mental traps. An example of an expert falling into mental traps is the painfully ignorant statements various scientists tend to make about historical events related to religion. They’re almost uniformly the same inaccurate claims thrown around by any other layperson, because in this they are the same as any other layperson– but their mental habit is to assume that what is in their head is of very high quality, even if it hasn’t been tested.

      • *wags paw* All that is true, when you have people who have not been inadvertently trained not to store information. Because of how the internet and social media seem to be conditioning young people, they have been trained not to retain material. They look it up, answer the question at hand, and then dump the data as soon as there is no longer a pressing, current need. When pressed a week, or three weeks later, to connect the current data with what they handled “back then,” they can’t. It’s not there. it never passed from short-term RAM into the memory files.

        Granted, that is a whole separate problem to deal with and work around, but it makes things like demanding rote memorization all that much more important at the early stages, because it sure looks like the “access and remember” function is vanishing.

        • *grimace* Oh, it’s worse than that– you’ll be actively punished if you *do* remember what the answer was last week, and point it out. Especially if the teacher has less of a grasp of the topic than her students, and that’s not what the teacher’s manual says on this specific page. (I know you’ve mentioned having to correct lesson books, so you know that struggle.)

          Being trained in how to memorize, even if it’s only incidental to making sure folks have something they need to use a lot down cold, is very important. But no amount of memorization is going to get people who have been taught by vicious punishment that drawing connections is bad to start trying to see how things stick together— you just get people who will “know” what they’ve been taught, and draw no new connections.

Comments are closed.