Sunday, July 26, 2015

Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom

Russell Ackoff, a systems theorist and professor of organizational change, classified the contents of the mind into:
  1. Data: symbols
  2. Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to "who", "what", "where", and "when" questions
  3. Knowledge: application of data and information; answers "how" questions
  4. Understanding: appreciation of "why"
  5. Wisdom: evaluated understanding.
Gene Bellinger, Durval Castro, Anthony Mills at Systems Thinking arrange these categories on the axes of understanding and connectedness, like this:
This is rather naive view of mental contents. There a many things to quibble about--both in the original version and the version pushed by Bellinger, Castro, and Mills (which is, however, an improvement. Can knowledge really be reduced to the application of data, and is the application of data reducible to "how" questions, for instance? This seems false to me for many reasons. Knowledge without causes ("why?") seems defective. And why is "understanding" supposed to be higher than knowledge? It's certainly not the ordinary use of "understanding," that allow us to say that we understand someone/something intuitively or approximately. Wisdom does not seem to be reducible to better connected knowledge either, etc., etc.

Bellinger, Castro, and Mills describe data as
  • raw. It simply exists and has no significance beyond its existence (in and of itself). It can exist in any form, usable or not. It does not have meaning of itself. In computer parlance, a spreadsheet generally starts out by holding data.
  • information is data that has been given meaning by way of relational connection. This "meaning" can be useful, but does not have to be. In computer parlance, a relational database makes information from the data stored within it.
I could live with these characterizations, but their definition of knowledge as "the appropriate collection of information, such that it's intent is to be useful. Knowledge is a deterministic process. When someone "memorizes" information (as less-aspiring test-bound students often do), then they have amassed knowledge. This knowledge has useful meaning to them, but it does not provide for, in and of itself, an integration such as would infer further knowledge. For example, elementary school children memorize, or amass knowledge of, the "times table" is seriously defective. Memorizing information certainly does not amount to knowledge, even if high schools nowadays (and perhaps always) work on this assumption

Still the graph is suggestive. The question what connectedness has to do with the difference between information and knowledge is interesting and needs to be pursued, though not here and now.[1]

The whole issue obviously has something to do with note-taking which does some work in the transformation of data to information and information to knowledge (no matter how they are defined).

1. I will return to it in later posts.

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