Thursday, September 11, 2014

TMI! TMI! Science in the Information Age

Douglas Hine wrote a great article on Aeon: What is Information? Where he talks about how we use the internet compared to the promise and potential of the internet. "The internet promised to feed our minds with knowledge. What have we learned? That our minds need more than that."

I found that clarifier misleading. Our minds may not need more than that, but for information to be valuable, our minds have to be able to do something with that information--put it into context, understand it, synthesize that into other knowledge we have and see how it relates. Hine does go on to discuss all that in the article, so read the whole thing--he makes a lot of great points that will get you thinking.

And that, my friends, is the big difference between having access to information and having knowledge.

At the CZ 99 Conference, the keynote speaker talked about how much better/easier things would be in the future for those of us working in natural resource management because of the Web, where everyone would have access to the same information. He spoke of our next big challenge being getting all the available information out to everyone by using this resource, so that better decision could be made! How exciting.

I turned to the person next to me and said something to the effect of, "That's ridiculous. Information isn't knowledge. The next big challenge is going to be differentiating valuable and correct information from garbage. Most people can't. The real challenge is going to be overcoming all the misinformation that will spread." She looked at me like I was nuts and I wondered if I was being too pessimistic.

I'm not making any claims to being prophetic here. Honestly, at the time, I hoped I was just being pessimistic. Yet, all we have to do is look to the discussion of climate science--and the fact we're having a discussion instead of doing something about it?!--to see I was on to something. Even more than I feared. Consider, more people understood and "believed" the science of climate change and global warming in the pre-internet 80s than in the 00s. It has been studied since the 1800s, with a lot of focus and progress through the 50s and 60, so scientists had a pretty good, but not great handle on it back then. They knew it would be big, if we didn't change our dependence on fossil fuels. They were confident we'd have better, cleaner technology before it became a problem. Little did they know the influence oil and gas lobbies would have on our ability to make any meaningful progress in that direction.

The information that was generated back in the 50s and 60s was analyzed and critiqued through the peer-review process, found to be robust and accurate, and then moved into the public realm through popular media--National Geographic, Scientific American, and then on into public policy discussions. By the end of the 1950s the consequences of CO2 release were clear enough for policy makers to take note. In 1965 President Johnson told the nation "[t]his generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through ... a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels." In 1969 Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was warning of a dangerous sea-level rise of 10 feet or more. "Goodbye New York" he said. "Goodbye Washington." (NPR, 2014.)

"...climate science and climate change are older than the atom bomb, older than the discovery of penicillin and the older than recognition of DNA. It's older than trans-Atlantic jet flights, digital computers and moon rockets. Climate science and its conclusions are now venerable, established science. To claim anything else is to rewrite history" (NPR, 2014.)

The evidence is overwhelming, the course we have to take (should have taken) is clear, but instead of moving forward, making progress, and at the rapid pace technology would allow us to, we've instead taken a step backward as a society, thanks largely to the information age being the success that it is.

"We're a nation of information illiterates."

As I, and a whole lot of people smarter than I am, saw coming fifteen years ago, our biggest challenge in managing the Earth's valuable and limited natural resources, in managing human health and well-being by ensuring the health of those resources isn't a lack of information, but a lack of knowledge. Too many people confuse information with knowledge, are happy to accept anything they find on the internet as "fact," never using any critical thinking to evaluate the legitimacy of that information, and never using any brain power to take the next step of analyzing it in the context of all other knowledge to make valid assessments about how it applies. We're a society of information-rich illiterates. (For a more in-depth look at the extent of that illiteracy, here's a great article at Open Education.)

Bloom's Taxonomy is a tool that explains how we learn and how we move from information to understanding, to real knowledge--with the ability to apply information appropriately in the correct situations to make valid decisions, then moving to fully understand the implications to other areas, not just the specific situation in which we've learned that information, and finally, the highest level of learning--being able to make valid assessments and evaluate new information and situations with that.
Bloom's Taxonomy

Our overwhelming access to unlimited, unfiltered information, and our indiscriminate use of the internet to get at it and spew it without thinking has led to us lopping off the top 5 layers of Bloom's pyramid. We've become complacent about learning--a society that thrives on information, but cares nothing about comprehending what that information means. Without that level of the pyramid, all the other layers crumble. We can't effectively apply information if we don't understand how and where it's appropriate to do so. We can't analyze bigger related concepts and link together the component parts--synthesize information--if we don't get what those building blocks of knowledge mean and how they relate to each other; we can't expand our use of these concepts and this information to other areas if we don't even understand it at it's simplest level, and without any of that, how do we ever evaluate the real significance of a problem so that we can then solve it?

"Maybe in the next incarnation of technological advancement, instead of being excited about a plethora of information, we'll focus on a plethora of learning and understanding...The Knowledge Age."

As the Information Age has played out so far, the answer to all those questions is, we don't. Is it any wonder I'm a curmudgeon?

Maybe in the next incarnation of technological advancement, instead of being excited about a plethora of information, we'll focus on a plethora of learning and understanding...The Knowledge Age. We can only hope.

Krumme Family, 2012. Major Categories in the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, 1956). Available at:

NPR, 2014. The Forgotten History of Climate Change. Available at:

Open Education, 2009. In the Midst of the Information Age, Why Are We So Uninformed? Available at:

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