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Wisdom, Socrates, and the McRibb (not necessarily in that order)

August 23, 2013

 

 

Information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. This simple truth is often ignored.

 

Maybe it's not surprising. After all, it doesn't take much work for information to masquerade as knowledge.

 

With a million statistics and soundbites at your fingertips, the internet can be an incredible tool for information-mining. But a fistful of data points doesn't necessary translate to truth. It's a concept perfectly embodied by Wikipedia, that convenient-but-at-times-questionable fount of facts, inconsistencies, and outright falsehoods.

 

The idea behind Wikipedia is that once enough people read and edit a post, the best version will ultimately win out. In the abstract, this sounds good, a sort of Darwinian movement towards truth. But the world is full of examples where people individually and/or collectively fail to do the right thing. Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect theory would go one step further and say that people don’t even always act in their own self-interest.

 

In order to understand the true breadth and depth of anything, you need to develop skill, and that takes time. When people can tap the internet and grab up the factoids they want, it's easy for the tapper to seem far better informed than he or she actually is.

 

This is especially true if you, the listener, are not overly familiar with the topic at hand. As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. And it can make it difficult to pin down the master of the internet with a well-placed "is the emperor wearing clothes?" question. Which is a shame, because when it comes to actually conveying truths, soundbites are to the internet jockey as a McRibb sandwich is to real barbecue: at best a poor imitation, and at worst a chopped-up and reconstituted travesty smothered in a zesty sauce of lies. (My apologies, McRibb lovers.)

 

So, in order to have knowledge, in order to be an expert, you need skill. Now we run into another issue. Simply possessing the necessary skills doesn't guarantee you'll have the judgement to use them wisely. One can be an expert in the art of war, but deciding when and how to wage war—or even if you should—requires a higher level of understanding.

 

Wisdom is the ability to gather the information at hand, weigh it against hard-earned knowledge, and use these insights to make better decisions. That, of course, is no small task.

 

Wisdom may be the ultimate X factor. It can't be taught, only gathered through experience, observation, and self-reflection. We might be wiser at 35 than we were at 15, yet age is hardly a free pass to wisdom. Some people seem to glide through the world, Magoo-like, without any real understanding or perspective, while others are amazingly grounded and insightful seemingly from the beginning.

 

So information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom, but each is inextricably linked to the other. Unfortunately, as with so many things, there are no guarantees.

 

“The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing," the great philosopher Socrates once said.

 

 Or, I mean, I think he said it. It was on Wikipedia.

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