Wednesday, September 07, 2011

On distinctions made between 'data', 'information' and 'knowledge'

Someone recently asked me what I thought about the distinction between data, information and knowledge.  I emailed them a response, and I thought I might as well turn that response into a blog post.

I think that it's good to recognise that not all "information" is the same, and that there is a kind of spectrum between 'raw data' and 'deep knowledge'.

But I'm not that keen on all the arguments about how you distinguish between these three concepts.  I just don't think we have a clear enough picture of what *any* of them are to draw sharp lines between them.  I also doubt there are any *sharp* lines to be drawn along that spectrum.

But aren't these sorts of arguments what is required to get a clearer understanding of the concept?  I don't think so.  I think our current understanding of these concepts is a "pre-scientific" one, and that what these arguments are doing is trying to find some set of criteria within these concepts that sharply distinguishes each from the other.  

I think that task is doomed to failure.  Here's aanalogy: when philosophers had a "pre-scientific" understanding of matter, they could get into all sorts of arguments about what was the difference was between liquids, solids and gasses (this is a thought-experiment, I don't know the historical details well enough to know specifically what happened).  But they were never going to solve the problem just trying to find some criteria to sharply distinguish these concepts from each other.

We now know that what was required was to get an understanding that we'd now label with terms like 'chemistry' and 'physics' -- an understanding in terms of molecules, atoms, etc.  What was required was to go deeper than their phenomenal concepts of 'liquid', 'solid' and 'gas'.  To have an understanding of what each of those things actually are, rather than just how to distinguish between them.

So, in the case of data, information and knowledge we need to go beyond our phenomenal notions of them and get at their "underlying physics", so to speak.  And when we do so we may find that -- like with 'liquids', 'solids' and 'gasses' -- there is an underlying unity there.

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