Archive for the 'Knowledge' Category

09
Feb
09

From Where Do You Seek Knowledge

Too often, I fail to acknowledge how lucky I am to know everything I do. I have access to resources that even 50 years ago weren’t readily available in local libraries let alone in the comfort of my home via computer. Beyond easy access, there’s the sheer volume of knowledge that’s accumulated over the years. With every passing year, we learn something about the world and about the people who inhabit it. However, I’ve noticed a worrisome trend in the way we’re gaining our knowledge—we’re doing it secondhand.

From Knowledge Comes Beliefs

Using the things we learn we form opinions and ideas that support a certain line of thought. Sometimes these opinions and ideas harden into beliefs that stick with us for years. Over time, I’ve come to realize that few of us extend the effort to go to the source, but rather listen to others who have.

I’ve defined the source as Authorities. These individuals include scientists and others who ask a particular question and then pursue activities in an effort to answer said question. Then, there are the Filters. These individuals include politicians, pundits, activists, and the like who analyze ideas generated by the Authorities and promote them to like-minded constituencies.

A significant portion of our knowledge comes from these two categories. It makes sense that we seek after the knowledge of people with the experience versus repeating everything ourselves. This reliance places us in a position of trusting that what we’re hearing is a truth, at least of sorts.

Too Much Faith

In recent years, I believe we’ve become far too reliant on the interpretation of knowledge promoted by Filters and ignored the original source to our detriment. I see this reliance in multiple public discussions where either side is equally vehement in its defense of a particular position:

  • Global Warming
  • Abortion
  • Big vs. Small Government
  • Foreign Policy

The list could go on for pages, but I suspect that within an instant you could easily call up multiple ideas and opinions related to these debates, both in support of your position and against it.

Now that you’re thinking of the reasons why you believe what you do, where did your knowledge come from? Perhaps I assume to much, but I hypothesize that much of what we know comes through Filters.

Authorities Require Extra Effort

Going to Authorities for our knowledge is a challenge. Sometimes the answers we’re seeking are buried under statistics and confusing prose that make our eyes feel heavy. Sometimes the obscurity of an Authority makes it difficult to return to the original work, particularly if a much easier book written by a Filter sits on the shelf or holds forth on the television. But we often miss something when we seek our knowledge via Filters—the original purpose of the Authority.

Filters Have Their Own Purpose

Filters have their own goals to fulfill, and whether those goals align with the original intent of the Authority can be secondary. Often, in order to answer a question, an Authority seeks to understand an opposing viewpoint to the answer pursued. The same does not happen as often with Filters. We’re left to weigh for ourselves the intent behind the knowledge the Filter chooses to put forth, sometimes with mixed results.

Debating with Filtered Knowledge

Consider our current circumstances. For many of us, what we know about the stimulus package being tossed around in Congress is based on what we’ve heard on the news or read online. (Note: If you’ve read the full bill, I’d love to hear your take on the situation.) We hear about Republicans fighting with Democrats, President Obama chastising reluctant politicians, and ominous declarations of what will happen if Congress fails to act. We hear very little about the actual details of the package itself, unless they’re controversial, like Representative Waxman’s addition of contraceptive funding. Why is that?

We’re talking about spending $800+ billion (that’s EIGHT zeros). It feels like we’ve abdicated our right to go to the source and instead rely on the Filters for what comes next. The same things has happened with multiple public debates. I’m not advocating that we swear off using Filters, but I do wonder what our world would look like if we were a little less reliant on them.

Filters make it easy to block out opposing viewpoints, putting us at individual risk. Sun Tzu said,

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

In our pursuit of evermore knowledge we owe it to ourselves to return to the source, to wade through the difficult, to challenge the interpretation presented by the Filters. Otherwise, we risk knowing neither ourselves nor our enemies.

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16
Apr
08

Know Thy Opponent

Recent research indicates that more than company profits fuel the stock market.

In a new study [John Coates] reports that traders who start the workday with high testosterone levels make more money on that day than their low-testosterone colleagues do. A hot day on the market sends their levels of the natural steroid up even more, Coates says; under the influence of their own hormones, they start to take bigger risks in hopes of bigger rewards.

Classical economic theory assumes that people make financial decisions in a rational way. But Coates’s finding is part of a growing body of work explaining why, in reality, they often don’t: they’re at the mercy of their biology. This school of thought helps illustrate how economic trends can get out of control, ballooning until they burst. It also suggests one reason why central banking is so tricky: policymakers don’t often take hormones into account. “[Former Federal Reserve chairman] Alan Greenspan spent his whole career trying to control economic bubbles,” says Coates. “I don’t think he realized he was up against steroids.”

…Anecdotally, Coates says that during his Wall Street days he thought that “women traders didn’t seem to be as affected” by irrational exuberance. A 2001 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics backs up that observation. “In areas such as finance,” it found, “men are more overconfident than women.” As a result, male stock traders tend to do more buying and selling than female traders do. Each trade costs money, and over the long term that money adds up. In the final calculus, according to the 2001 paper, it’s men, not women, who underperform. (link)

This study highlights one of the overlooked aspects in the gender debate: men and women DO respond to things differently and acknowledging these differences does not make one a gender basher. I know there are individuals who are resistant to this part of the gender equality debate because they feel it undermines their position.

The idea that recognizing the validity of an opponent’s position is a bad thing has hindered so many issues. Employees vs. companies, Israelis vs. Palestinians, citizens vs. governments, rich vs. poor. When we’re in a fight, why are we so unwilling to see the other’s side? Doing so doesn’t require that we agree 100% with our opponent. If anything, knowing and acknowledging the other side’s position puts one in a position of strength. Isn’t knowledge power? When did we decide that this wasn’t the case?

08
Apr
08

Painful Knowledge

We often hear that knowledge is power, but do you ever miss the time before you knew something? For example, on days where I’m debating post options, I sometimes wish I didn’t know about blogs. It would mean one less thing to worry about in a day. However, it would also mean forgoing the pleasure of a well-written post and the potential conversation created.

Chasing after knowledge is a balancing act because it comes with an equal opportunity for positive or negative consequences. I remember as a young child, about six or so, that I overheard my mom on the phone discussing the divorce of a family friend. I didn’t really understand what divorce meant, but I knew that it was something adult, almost taboo.

While playing with this friend’s daughter, she made me mad, claiming she knew something I didn’t. I decided to trump her and proclaimed her parents were getting divorced. As you can imagine, the chain of events that followed was less than pleasant. This early lesson in the power of knowledge was painful for everyone involved and has stayed with me my entire life.

I wish I’d never learned about the divorce, but here’s the reality. The knowledge in and of itself isn’t bad, but how I chose to use the information was, and for me, that’s the lesson. How do you use your knowledge?

30
Jul
07

The High Cost of Getting What You Want

Catching up on the news this morning, I came across Wired‘s report on American tech spending. Not surprisingly, we’re spending a chunk of money to stay connected. According to Wired:

the proportion of US household budgets spent on tech products and services—computers, game consoles, cell phone service, cable, TVs—has held steady at about 5 percent for most of the past decade. We’re just spending that money—more than we pay for health insurance—on different stuff. (link)

What’s different? We’re “spend[ing] a lot less on TVs (as prices have dropped) but more on cable and satellite services (we need our HBO).”

I wasn’t really shocked by how much we’re spending (I’ve bought several goodies in the last few months; unfortunately, none were particularly cheap.). The number Wired used for comparison did surprise me. We spend more money on tech than we do on health insurance. What?!?!

Lately, as I’ve listened to the debate about health care in this country, I’ve been struck again and again by this idea that as a society, we want, as the cliché goes, to have our cake and eat it too. National health care, whether you agree with it or not, comes with a price tag that few seem willing to pay even as they prepare to get in line for the benefit.

The same principle applies in any event when society expresses a desire for anything of late. Vocal proponents for every cause from saving the earth to ending the ware in Iraq rarely address the cost of these choices. This post isn’t about the validity of any of these causes or others like them but rather about the unwillingness of a society to actually discuss the consequences of a decision.

We’ve gotten into a dangerous habit of skipping past the details in our efforts to achieve the goal and get what we want. We fell in love with Google and forgot to ask the basic question about what it was doing with all that search information. And now there’s growing questions about Google’s information policies. We’re doing it all over again with social apps like Facebook and MySpace. What exactly are the doing with all that user-posted information? It’s probably spelled out in legalese in the user agreement, but when was the last time you read a user agreement?

Perhaps the moral is a tried but true one: be careful what you ask for, you just might get it. And I’d make a small addition—are you prepared for the consequences?

Comments? 

03
Jul
07

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.

Comments?




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