The Growing (and Dangerous) Gap Between Information and Wisdom

August 20th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

internet_worldThe Internet is a truly remarkable advancement in our ability to access information. Just about anything we could possibly want to know is now just a few keystrokes away. But, as with most technological innovations, for every benefit to our lives, there is a potential cost as well.

With the universe of information now available to anyone, I’m getting the sense that there are more and more people who think that, just because they have gained a great deal of information on an issue, they can call themselves experts. Unfortunately, these people don’t know what they don’t know. And therein lies the problem. This nearly infinite library of information is exposing the growing gap between information and wisdom (and all of the steps in between) that has serious implications for our country and the world at large in the arenas of, among others, education, politics, science, and media.

Information is certainly the starting point for meaning and value, but there are several steps that must be taken with that information for it to morph, ultimately, into what I believe is the most powerful use information has: wisdom.

Information is generally considered to be a collection of facts or data that originate from experience, scrutiny, instruction, or others. It may be factual or false, believed or rejected, short-lived or enduring. It is the most basic form of input and the foundation for our perceptions, judgments, attitudes, beliefs, decisions, and behavior. Information is gained, for example, when you read a newspaper article, observe an event, have an experience, or share a conversation. If you don’t dive below the surface, the information remains merely data that can be regurgitated, but nothing more.

The next stage as you dive deeper in the sea of wisdom is knowledge which involves a basic understanding of the information. Knowledge takes information and makes it useful. Think of a radiology technician as compared to a radiologist. The former may look at an MRI and see an abnormality, but the latter can know what it is.

When you dive even deeper, you arrive at insight which involves the ability to understand the very nature of the information and to look at it in complex and novel ways. Insight also relates to the capacity to organize, integrate, and synthesize the information for the purpose of creating, problem solving, and making decisions. Insight results from people answering the following questions: what does it mean, what are its implications, how does it impact you and the world, how does it fit into your life? Insight, for example, enables the aforementioned radiologist to not only see an anomaly in an MRI, but also to identify what it is, how it likely developed, its probable course, and the most appropriate treatment.

At the bottom of this sea is wisdom, which is the culmination of information, knowledge, and insight with one additional ingredient: experience. Wisdom that comes from experience enables you to take a piece of information and understand it not just in the here and now. Rather, wisdom allows it to be considered in the three-dimensional context of time, setting, and relationship to other information. The end result of information that evolves into wisdom is that it can be used to make reasoned judgments and sound decisions, and take appropriate action based on that information. Qualities often associated with wisdom, that are typically related to experience, include calm, humility, and a concern for others.

People can become experts based on exceptional information, knowledge, and insight (all three are required), but only years of in-depth consideration of information, and the maturity that only experience can provide, will result in the deepest form of authority that wisdom brings.

So why, as the title of my post alludes, can information be dangerous? In previous generations, most information wasn’t immediately available to most people and certainly not in the quantity that it is now. Most information accessible to people was provided in some sort of structured context, for example, school or work, in which it was taught by an expert, apportioned out incrementally, and usually involved a depth and breadth of exploration that enabled information to morph into knowledge and perhaps even into insight and wisdom. This traditional method of learning also ensured that people had a point of reference, namely, a true expert, for knowing how much they really knew; the teacher showed her students, for example, how much they had to learn to be truly versed in a subject.

The availability of information now found on the Internet presented without such rigid structure is a positive development in several ways. The Internet has democratized information allowing anyone with an Internet connection to learn about the world. People are now free to gain knowledge in their own way and toward their own ends. No longer is information meted out by a self-appointed gatekeeper.

At the same time, information doth not an expert make. The sheer volume of information that is readily available on the Internet without proper context or consideration of what real knowledge, insight, and wisdom are —quantity rarely equates with quality—can lead people to believe they know what they’re talking about. Gaining information in the vacuum of the Internet can result in people who don’t know what they don’t know. It can also lead people to fall victim to a common cognitive bias known as the overconfidence effect in which people believe they know far more than they actually do.

But the Internet isn’t just about the output of information. It is also a powerful tool for the input of information and this is where information without knowledge, insight, or wisdom can be equally dangerous. As we all know, the Internet provides a potentially high soapbox with a very loud megaphone, offering any self-proclaimed authority with the means to broadcast their so-called expertise to the unsuspecting masses.

I’m certainly not advocating that access to information be restricted. Nor would I ever support infringing on our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. I suppose all I can hope for from this post is to warn people away from those who call themselves authorities based only on having information and to encourage them to seek out knowledge, insight, and wisdom before assuming the mantle of expert.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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One Response to “The Growing (and Dangerous) Gap Between Information and Wisdom”

  1. larry |

    Dr. Jim
    A very worthwhile read.

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