Knowledge or Information 5/7/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Never before has such a wealth of information been available at the fingertips of people. In a way, this is a continual trend; I would wager that with rare exception, each generation has more information available than the previous. For as long as information could be passed on, it was to the newer generation, first in vocal form. As written communication developed, information could transcend more than one or two generations. The printing press gave rise to books with even greater longevity.

Enter Bleil.

My generation had information available from centuries past, just as today’s generation does. The difference is that we had to contend with the bulk storage required for books. Attempts were made with advancements like microfiche, but still, one had to use a myriad of tools to search countless sources for that bit of information needed.

Today, searching is as easy as entering a keyword into a search engine. While some of the sources might require some fee to access, much of the information is even available, immediately and free of charge. I have even had a student once claim that everything that can be known is and is available to everybody through the internet.

Well, no, it’s really not. There are still countless things that are not known or well understood; we’re nowhere near knowing all there is to know, and personally, I believe it is impossible to ever reach that limit. What’s more, the assumption that all human knowledge is available online is equally incorrect. Heck, even I know things that are not to be found online, and I’m certain that you do as well.

The problem with information today is that it is just as easy to upload false or misleading information as it is correct. We see this in many formats; conspiracy theorists, inadvertent propagation of political fallacies, or even coordinated campaigns of misinformation. This has given rise to people arguing science based on apocryphal or just plain incorrect arguments. Without checking the sources, the information is shaky at best.

Knowledge is deeper than information and comes from far greater effort. Knowledge is based on research, effort and investigation that requires dedication to a discipline and extensive time and effort. The difference between knowledge and information is that with knowledge, false information can be spotted readily, because knowledge is derived from a multitude of different sources and synthesis of the information contained in these sources. If one source conflicts with another, those seeking knowledge will continue digging for more sources, check the primary sources of the conflicting information, and, yes, even think independently from the sources of information. I have spent years studying classical thermodynamics, quantum theory and statistical thermodynamics (the bridge between classical and quantum), and there are things authors write in textbooks that drive me crazy, including upper level textbooks. These should be written by people knowledgeable in their field, but terms like “specific heat capacity”, or the concept of electrons moving in clockwise or counterclockwise directions just simply drive me insane. These ideas are being expressed by authors with information, but no knowledge. Personally, I can immediately see where these ideas arose, explain why they are wrong, and even dig up supporting evidence, and the reason isn’t because I can find information but because I have knowledge of the discipline. In fact, ironically, if my readers look up these concepts on the internet, no doubt they will find information that says that I am the one that is wrong, but take sufficient thermodynamics with me and in the end you’ll walk out with mathematical proof that both of these concepts are incorrect.

Never confuse information with knowledge. Knowledge is like love; it’s not brought about by trivialities and is a term that is often used far more casually than it should be. It takes time to prove, effort to build, and dedication to demonstrate. Beware such claims that are brought about too quickly.

Knowledge is a beautiful thing. It really is, and well worth the effort. I’ve never really understood why so many people in our society will but forth so much effort on things like video games. When it was popular, people would work, and struggle, and practice and strive to be the best guitar hero game player they could possibly be. Okay, I can’t fault people for enjoying the game, but I also can’t help but wonder if these people working so hard to master it ever thought to themselves that by putting as much effort into learning a real guitar they could develop a skill that many people don’t have. I’ve always envied people with artistic skills; how cool would it be to hear somebody say, “hey, grab your guitar and play something?” Instead, when I tried to learn guitar, people would say, “Oh, gawd, give it a rest already!!!” I have devoted significant time, resources and energy into learning chemistry, specifically physical chemistry, and while it’s not something many people enjoy listening to, it certainly is fun to think about how it applies to give me a better understanding of the world around me.

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