I have often wondered what we think of as knowledge. And what is it made up of? Friends have said it is built up of years of experience and passed down from generation to generation. Is this true? Well to some extent I think it is, but does that mean all knowledge is useful? Or all knowledge should be used? Now that is a whole different story, here are some examples of knowledge passed down to us over the years.
- Red sky at night, shepherds delight (weather good tomorrow)
- Don’t go outside with wet hair, you will catch a cold
- Squeaky hair is clean hair
- An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Two of these have elements of truth about them but the other two are completely wrong, I will leave you to do the research and find out which two are right and which are wrong. As we go through life it is our job to try and filter out the useful knowledge from the not so useful knowledge and as you probably realize this can be a difficult job. There are only so many times you can go out with wet hair before you prove that one right or wrong. All of the statements I have illustrated above can be traced back to what was thought to have been a factual observation. As time has passed they have become part of our vernacular and presumed to have been true.
Now let’s replace the word knowledge with the word data or information (it works in almost all cases in the paragraphs above) As information passes down through the chain of command it tends to become distorted or gets reinterpreted until the version we perceive as true has been distorted out of all recognition, so we end up making decisions on second, third or fourth-hand information.
This can happen in a few ways and not always as part of the whisper trail, although this is one of the most common. It can also happen because we don’t understand the information we are using and make presumptions based on what we perceive the data is or even something that is much more dangerous, what we perceive the answer should be.
In science there is a whole methodology around proving whether a theory is right or wrong:
So the best thing to do is to leave that part to the experts and let us the people that are using the information to gain insight, leverage the fruits of their labor to inform our decisions. So next time someone hands you a spreadsheet and says “here is the answer” have a little thought as to what journey that answer has been on.
Image by ArchonMagnus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons