Faux Knowledge

We are a techno-society.  There’s no way around it.

Many of us embrace technology in our own ways.  Others eschew it.  One friend doesn’t possess an email address and would still be using the old “brick” phones of the 1980s if we hadn’t urged her (grudgingly, it seems) into the 21st century, while another raves about her Kindle as if it were the wheel reinvented.

One thing that technology provides us is almost immediate access to information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365.25 days a year.  In a previous post, we looked at the difference between data, information, and knowledge.  Here’s a visual aid:

What happens when we turn to the internet to get answers?  We get an answer, true, but where would it fall on the spectrum?

For those raised during the advent of increased technological presence, we might believe – wrong or right – that we “know” so much more than we used to, simply by virtue of having access to answers.  Again, we fall prey to thinking that “information” is knowledge, when in fact it is likely to be false knowledge.

Recently, an individual of my acquaintance (we’ll call him Tom) chose to attack a statement made by another online, even though it was apparent to the rest of us that the original statement was meant as a source of humor and entertainment and not necessarily one of fact.  Online, it is often difficult to read intent, tone, and emotion in a posted statement.  Tom proceeded to back up his attack with information found on numerous sites around the world wide web.  In the moment, it might appear that Tom knew something of what he was arguing about.  However, a closer look revealed many logic-holes in his heated comments.  In scrambling to appear that he knew what he was talking about, he instead only made himself look foolish in repeating others’ words as a defense.  Dr. Phil likes to call it “right fighting,” a process in which a person presses his point until someone concedes that he is “right.”

Unfortunately for Tom, he fell under the spell of false knowledge.  In quickly assembling an argument – cobbling it together from varied and vastly different contextual pieces – he stumbled and eventually fell.  Metaphorically speaking.

False knowledge is often wording that we repeat without having done any of the research ourselves.  It might also be called “gossip” in the right context.

“I heard that Tom is a closet drunk.”  (poor Tom, we’re picking on him a lot today)

The words “I heard” should be the first red flag.  “I heard” indicates that the information is from an unnamed and unverifiable source, and therefore be relegated to the “data” category until we know more.

“Tom is a closet drunk” is a much different type of statement, and should be approached with caution because it’s dressed in knowledge’s clothing, but is really just plain gossip, and therefore data.  Data can be comprised of words that have not been proven as fact.  Once data is verified, it can be moved into a higher category.  If it’s something we care about, we can do the research ourselves.  Do we care whether Tom is a closet drunk or not?  I’m thinking probably not, unless Tom drives your children’s school bus or is in a position in which others’ safety depends on his clearheaded thinking and unfiltered actions.  If we’re somehow connected to Tom more intimately – as friends or business partners – we might care about his well-being and do a little digging to learn more in order to help him seek help.

In my daily work, both as a coach and a government worker, I encounter people who mistake “data” for “knowledge,” and spread that form of ignorance as if they are quite certain of its veracity.  They try to confuse you into believing them, and bamboozle you with continuous statements of data trying to pass itself off as information or knowledge.  When we begin to teach ourselves to recognize the differences in the things we read or hear, we begin to be able to discern falsehoods more readily.  We know that certain members of our friends’ circles might be prone to trying to pass off data as something greater, and we know to take that person’s statements with a wide margin of disbelief.  We also become more and more immune to false knowledge, because we know to look for the signs that data is being dressed up as something else.