Information versus Knowledge

Hierarchy of data: a progression worth considering

I don’t know whether any of you have noticed the increased rate of information exchange over the past year, but I have to say that without being an ostrich you have to have seen a huge increase in dissemination of useless information. Remember the videos of Floosey the cat with a hat; or the one showing someone sleeping in front of the TV?!

When you look at Google statistics it seems as if we have doubled the volume of internet searches during COVID. As I tried to dissect why, and the impact of this information tsunami, I recognized that something significant had occurred. People seem to be more interested in the volume of information they access (i.e. websites/facebook/social media) rather than the depth of the material they are prepared to read (such as newspapers/books/journals). The exception seems to be an interest in COVID science, but the rest of us are flying at low levels in what we read.

What does this mean? The online experience is usually one of reading mounds of superficial information and forming your best opinion from them. For those of you who are reading newspapers/books and discussing how this informs you, I say kudos to you! I also know that there are discerning individuals who use the online approach, but most of the ones I know are using online searches as well as printed material/newspapers or anything they can get their hands on. Such individuals find a balanced opinion using online searches because they start from a discerning viewpoint. The opposite is also true: the undiscerning searcher feeding from multiple sources of superficial information, is easily led astray by forming false assumptions; the most worrying one being that that information is knowledge. A huge volume of superficial information is no less believable than a single piece of superficial information. Unfortunately, multiple pieces of unbalanced information usually exaggerates the falsity of the claim.

There is an important distinction here, one that we sometimes miss. The discerning reader is prepared to take all opinions (even those that challenge their assumptions) and form a new opinion. If we aren’t prepared to change our opinions then its likely that online searches or any other sources we read will not result in discernment. When we fail to filter this with life experience and discernment, and a healthy regard of those who know better than us, its likely we wont change our opinions. If this is the case society is doomed.

How would I argue this in a court of law? The first premise I would make is that there is a hierarchy of data. Information on its own is simply data. Information that is filtered by life experience becomes knowledge – which ultimately should enable us to make reasonable choices. Ever wondered why someone thinks the way they do? First look at their life experiences and that will inform your answer. Making the right decision is at the highest end of this hierarchy, and it requires a second filter. Pure data that is unfiltered is information; data that has been filtered by discernment is knowledge; knowledge that has been filtered by discernment and understanding allows for decision making. This is called wisdom.

Secondly, this issue is at the heart of the debates around COVID: the internet has made huge amounts of data available to everyone. This has made us all feel that we are well informed, with superior knowledge to those around us. We quote numbers left right and centre as if to say that knowing data makes us experts. This has led to a significant trust challenge. If the data we use doesn’t jive with our governments/employers/societal opinions, we distrust them and propound our own theories!

My hypothesis is that many of us are unable to look deeply enough to realize what is happening to us within this pandemic. Life around us has changed that radically that we are being pushed to the brink. Our brains tell us (helped by social media) that if such a mess can happen so easily, we cannot rely on the people in leadership to get us out of it. They seem to be part of the problem! We conclude that they should have been able to see that this was going to happen; and that their efforts are not taking this away. We were prepared to give our public health officials some grace at the beginning and support our governments and frontline workers; but why haven’t the restrictions worked?! We despair as we lose jobs, our economy struggles, and we aren’t able to live normal lives. Our minds tell us to look for some “saviour” in the answers we have available to us on the internet- hence the natural cures that are heralded, our belligerence towards lockdowns and our disdain for public health measures.

By now you have either thrown this aside or begun to wonder why I am so passionate. Let me give context to the topic. Over the past year I have watched people who are dear to me struggle with all of this, and resort to identifying things that make sense to them. Take QAnon for example. This movement has become popular especially during the past 6 months? It has taken unrelated data points and connected them in an easy way. As a result it has reported that liberals are pedophiles, that the “black lives matter” groups are evil, that big pharma is complicit with government corruption, that the Chinese government planned the pandemic, and that the 2020 US election was rigged. Furthermore it says that there will be a day of reckoning where all will be revealed. Many of us know that there is some truth to many of these assertions; but to link them and come up with a plausible explanation requires more than simply connecting stories. It requires knowledge and wisdom, and discernment. I see little of the latter in the QAnon assertions.

The movement has attracted much attention recently from baby boomers, who are tired of the establishment and the unfairness of societies. With the depression/anxiety/economic hardship being experienced many of these individuals are prepared to hear conspiracy theories based on partial truths. Those of you who know me also know how dogmatic I am about the dangers of social media. The majority of you will likely tell me that you don’t share my views on this and will ask what this has to do with the subject at hand? I submit that weighing up the importance of this topic as it relates to social media has a significant bearing on how we get through the next few years.

As we deal with multiple crises globally it seems important to remind you that all of us need to strive for wisdom. COVID is still with us; vaccination programs are debated till the cows come home; US is politically losing ground to China; Canada is struggling to understand climate change and the consequences of carbon pollution. When used to share information (whether its numbers, connecting with friends/family or photos) these platforms are invaluable. In fact this is one of the reasons many of you have survived COVID. However, such media platforms do not purport to share knowledge. They base their merit on the neutrality of the messages within their software.

I have sat by patiently when friends have quoted the next conspiracy theory, or touted the benefits of an ill proven therapy. We shrug when the next conspiracy theory about the vaccine hits the airwaves; and we hope that our politicians have it together in dealing with China and climate change. Many of us have chosen to not do anything, other than grumble when we see misinformation. I think the time has come to challenge those who use misinformation to change opinion, because our societies depend on it. 

Why be concerned now; aren’t we already too late? I believe that our societies are caught up in a multitude of mind games, and that reliance on social media has created an entire community of unhappy people. The answer is in front of us – this COVID experience needn’t destroy the generous society that western countries have worked hard to create. We have to rely on what we know is right, trust in the benevolence of our government and public health authorities and do more for each other. Cloistering ourselves in a cocoon where conspiracy theories make us feel superior is not the way we will get out of this crisis.

Its my opinion that we shouldn’t let misinformation rule our societies; institutions that have taken centuries to form. Fortunately, it only takes a few to turn this madness around. Fight for a wise, generous and knowledgeable society – be one of those few!

Peter Craighead

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