Information is Not Knowledge

This past week, the cover of Newsweek caught my eye when I pulled it from the mailbox. The cover story, “What You Need to Know Now,” highlights an interesting concept: is there such a thing as necessary cultural knowledge for an entire population? Newsweek offers a quiz to test your knowledge. I was surprised by a few facts. Please don’t laugh if you already knew:

  • America’s biggest trade partner is Canada
  • Mexican immigrants send home $20 billion a year
  • Until now, every presidential election since 1928 has included the current vice president as a contender

But somehow I knew that Charles Barkley wasn’t in the starting line-up for the original Olympic Dream Team. Funny the information we tuck away over the years.

Ultimately, I scored a paltry 56% on the quiz, but my results put me on the right side of the curve. My score also places me in the category of someone you could take to most dinner parties. I’d love to know your results if you take the quiz. For the record, I didn’t search for any of the answers. It was more fun that way.

Who Decides What is Important to Know?

The Newsweek quiz covers politics, technology, music, movies, sports, science, and religion (there’s probably a few more, but the quiz fried my brain). We live in a global community, so can there realistically be one standard of knowledge?

Then you get into the murky water of individual fields. How important is it for a physicist to understand the structure of a sentence, or a writer to understand quantum mechanics? In essence, how much information is too much? Does information ever become unnecessary?

Unless you plan on becoming a Jeopardy champion, what can you gain from more information? Personally, I think there’s such a thing as too much information, but I’m not sure you can ever have enough knowledge. During the 130 questions in the Newsweek quiz, I was equally fascinated by the new information and appalled at my lack of knowledge. I read over a 100 books a year, and I know I’m still lacking important knowledge even though I sometimes overflow with information.

Too Much Information?

I borrowed today’s post title from Albert Einstein. He made the important distinction that “information is not knowledge.” (link) Perhaps the answer lies in acknowledging Einstein’s point. We are surrounded by information—the Web, books, TV, film, magazines, newspapers—that can overwhelm the senses and deaden the brain. Maybe instead of seeking only more information we need to spend more time figuring out how to turn that information into knowledge.

Confucius said, “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” (link) Like our natural resources, I suspect that true knowledge is a dwindling resource. We are all familiar with the talking heads who spout numbers and “facts” on TV without placing the information in context. I’m concerned that as a defense mechanism against so much information floating around, we’ll stop trying to apply it.

Future Knowledge

Knowledge gives you the power to effect change. You can have all the information in the world at your fingertips, but if you don’t know how to apply it, the information is useless. I think Wikipedia is an amazing example of this concept. Wikipedia contributors are turning information into knowledge. It’s one thing to know something in your own head, it’s another to communicate it to someone else and put it out there for the world to see.

If Wikipedia was crafted by information hounds, they could make a list of bullets or cut and paste from other sources. Instead, these contributors are sharing their knowledge and, in many cases, are finding support from secondary sources. Maybe future school reforms will require that students be able to write a Wikipedia entry on a particular topic. Grading would then depend on how the community edits the entry.

I believe it is still possible to make information relevant, to turn it into knowledge. But you have to want it. I don’t believe you can hand knowledge out. It takes individual effort, and I wonder if we’ll be wise enough to pursue knowledge, warts and all, or if we’ll turn into a “just the facts” society.



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July 2007
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