I was listening to an interview the other day where someone was pointing out how, where earlier people used to attend training courses, today they go straight to the internet, YouTube in this example, to access information.

This may be so, but the next question has to be whether information the same thing as knowledge?

Information is the raw substance. It is only in a next step, should we chose to assimilate it, that may become a facet of our knowledge. I suppose you could compare it to a length of rope: the line has an MBS you can quote, has a defined construction and a specific material it is made from, these relevant pieces of information you can look up, yet an unconfectioned piece of rope is not really much use: in order to put it to work, you need to tie a knot in the end of the line, splice an eye onto it or add a stitched termination. This blending of various pieces of information and techniques to reach a desired target is an example of a process I would describe as applying knowledge.

There are various sources of knowledge:

  • perceptual: based upon direct evidence of our senses
  • testimonial: facts acquired from other people or media
  • inner sense: awareness of our own feelings and states, such as pain and hunger
  • inferential: knowledge we stitch together ourselves from various raw inputs

A competent operator will be in possession of a well-balanced mix of these various types of knowledge to base his or her decisions upon.

One of the basic requirements for knowledge is that we need to believe in it.

But more than just that, the belief also ought to be true. Truth, obviously, is a slippery concept, one can conceivably believe something for the wrong reasons or we can arrive at a right answer for the wrong reasons. Edmund Gettier, a US philosopher, descried the Gettier Problem, an example of which would be a clock, which usually tells the time accurately, but has now stopped at twelve o’clock. Should I then look at the clock at twelve o’clock, I would believe it to be midday, which it happens to be – but my knowledge is based upon a wrong assumption, i.e. that the clock is indicating the right time, when actually it was pure coincidence I happened to glance at it right then, so actually it is no more than a belief.

Take this statement: Taking a fall onto your anchor point from above is...

  • not a problem, you simply have to man up and brace yourself. > This is objectively wrong. High impact forces are dangerous and can potentially cause serious injury. This is a fallacy.
  • is dangerous because it can cause your line to fail. > This is a Gettier-type problem. Yes, it is dangerous, but not because the line can fail. The anchor point or your internal organs are likely to be negatively impacted by the arresting of a dynamic fall, the line less so. Consequently, this is a misconceived belief – or, viewed through a Gettier lens: a belief resulting in the right conclusion, yet based upon (partially) incorrect reasoning or assumptions.
  • to be avoided at any time. It is dangerous as the arresting of a dynamic fall causes high peak forces which can cause internal injury or damage to the spine. We employ work-positioning techniques, such as use of lanyard or other end of the climbing line to mitigate this risk. > This statement is a belief which corresponds with an objective truth.

Part of the problem is that when it comes to complex issues we have to rely upon the knowledge of other people. After all, in our everyday lives we are surrounded by objects and technology whose inner working we have little understanding of, yet as a society we are capable of astounding feats, this is largely thanks to the pooling of knowledge. But how do you know when to trust someone else’s knowledge? Ask yourself what motives the other person might have in wanting you to believe something, other than that it is true. Think critically, assess their credentials, track record and potential bias.

Ask the same questions of yourself when it comes to your beliefs, critically assess how you came to a conclusion or where you might be falling prey to biases or other mental pitfalls.

These are some of the reasons that I believe it is important to differentiate between information and knowledge. The internet is a rich source of information, yet we need to take it a step further, blending that information with our knowledge base in a critical fashion. Today I see many concepts emerging out of the echo chamber which social media are, based upon belief alone. These concepts may have merit, yet belief alone is insufficient to establish whether this is so. They need to be measured against objective truths and replicable benchmarks.

Knowing something is a richer, more complex state than merely believing it.