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What's the Difference Between Knowledge and Information?

How do you know when you really know something?

Key points

  • Information might lead to knowledge but is not the same as knowledge, nor does it replace knowledge.
  • Knowledge depends on having a context into which information can be accurately placed; context is one of the keys.
  • Knowledge is what you understand thoroughly, are familiar with from a variety of angles, can explain, and can, if asked, teach to someone else.
  • Acquiring knowledge is not merely the transfer of an unexamined parcel of data from one set of hands to another. 

Everybody my age wanted to be an archeologist. I used to look out of the windows of our 1967 Buick Skylark hoping I'd spot dinosaur skeletons when we went for Sunday drives. (This was on the south shore of Long Island, as if a triceratops would have dropped dead after snacking at Nathan's.)

The students I've been teaching for the last twenty years or so all wanted to be forensic scientists. They believed they'd be able to solve a decades-old mystery by finding half a sneaker in the woods behind Kohl's.

Everybody longs to take the tiniest bit of information—a bone shard or the smallest spot of blood—and discover the whole story behind it. There's an innate drive, it seems, to uncover information and then place it into a wider perspective. We want to fit a previously unidentifiable smidgen of evidence that will then, Eureka!, cause a massive body of knowledge to fall into place.

Does information necessarily lead to knowledge? Does the accumulation of detail necessarily lead to a greater sense of understanding?

In trying to figure this out, I asked my public and private Facebook friends (a diverse group of more than 8,000), "What's the difference between information and knowledge?"

More than 250 readers replied with their own stories—this despite the fact that in my first post I spelled the word "knowledge" incorrectly. (Spelling, like posture, is not one of my innate skills, talents, or gifts.)

While it's obvious that there are many perspectives raised by the question, the conversation about what distinguishes knowledge and understanding from mere facts and information fired up our collective imagination.

"Information is the notes," declares mental-health worker Amy Severinghaus, "But knowledge is the music." You need information to have knowledge, but without knowledge, information lies lifeless. And that's because, as Cotten J. Smith, an advisor to not-for-profit associations, put it, "Information exists independently of people (or any sentient being). Knowledge requires a ‘someone’ to know it."

Who decides what is relevant? What is relevant changes all the time, like soup du jour, and you can’t get mad if the soup du jour is not the same as it was yesterday.

Having knowledge is different from picking up information. We can all collect facts; all human communities have done so in order to survive. Most of the world has access to various forms of mythologies, materials, experience, scientific studies, and news articles that seem to offer explanations for whatever questions we offer the universe, and every generation believes it has the final say on what's really going on. But these explanations change over time, across cultures, and throughout history.

What appears as a fact at one point or in one place can be nullified when observed from different angles. There are people alive now who still ask the following questions: Doesn't the sun really rotate around the earth?, Isn't the earth undeniably flat?, Did men actually land on the moon?, Are JFK and Elvis still alive?

You can find "information" supporting all the theories that give rise to such questions. And sometimes it can seem as if misguided information takes the stage and gets the spotlight. As Pat McCulloch argues, "Information is the bully that pushes knowledge around," and that can lead to bad influences as well as good ones.

What happens during the study of a subject and the acquisition of knowledge is not the same, therefore, as what happens at UPS: It is not merely a transfer of an unexamined parcel of data from one set of hands to another.

Being knowledgeable about a subject doesn't necessarily mean you've spent years reading books on the topic in an isolated ivory tower. It might not involve much formal schooling at all. But it does depend on having a relevant context into which to put the details.

Kuba Glazek, one of those former students of mine at the University of Connecticut who did go into forensic science (without finding a sneaker), centers his distinction between information and knowledge on a singular factor: experience.

Says Dr. Glazek, "I am a human factors consultant at Rimkus Consulting Group, a forensic consulting company with offices around the country and globally. My work entails analyzing the human element in accident causation. I examine evidence, inspect accident sites, review scientific literature, generate expert opinions, write reports, and serve as an expert witness in legal proceedings.

"I examine the evidence in any particular case through the lens of my training in cognitive psychology, expertise in forensic analysis, and pertinent scientific literature to help my clients understand whether the actions of the people involved were reasonable under the circumstances. For example, a passenger vehicle impacts a pedestrian. Footage from a home security camera from across the street was obtained by the police. The video shows the pedestrian manipulating multiple items in her hands as she walks into the street without looking out for oncoming traffic. The motor vehicle's front dips (indicating braking) 1.2 seconds after the pedestrian enters the street. All of this information is useful in my analysis, as I can determine who was or was not paying attention to their respective task. Attention, perception, motor control, and reaction time are pertinent human factors in this (imaginary) scenario, and my opinions would be generated with them in mind."

The details are crucial, and we would all have a gut reaction to learning them; the knowledge behind offering an expert opinion, however, is a dispassionate one that emerges from a deep and thorough understanding of widely different ways of approaching the topic.

Wrote James Kobielus, "Information is the odds, but knowledge is where you place your wager." Kobielus, a senior research director in data management, goes on to suggest that "If we can borrow a conceptual framework from quantum mechanics, information is the superposition of all possible outcomes, but knowledge is what, in the act of choosing from a field of possibilities, collapses the probabilities down to one outcome you end up owning."

Being able to understand and interpret doesn’t depend as much on the topic as it does on the ability of the person facing the question. Knowledge helps us endure uncertainty; information, when not vetted or observed carefully, plays into uncertainty and feeds off chaos. As Sharon Alleman, an executive who works in finance, puts it, “Knowledge is understanding the consequences of the information.”

What you understand thoroughly, are familiar with from a variety of angles, can explain and can, if asked, teach to someone else is knowledge.

Information is essential, and gathering information is the best way to approach a topic—as long as your information comes from diverse, sane, and vetted sources. Ultimately, however, it is insufficient. As author Jim Carpenter wrote, “Information is what knowledge has for breakfast.”