Ten Years On – Information vs Knowledge

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DIKW pyramid (1991)


It was ten years ago, in late 2005 that I completed the essay which appears as the ‘flagship’ of this website: Information = Knowledge? My thesis is that knowledge is internal to humans (and many animals) and cannot exist outside of the body-brain. Once expressed, via action or word, it becomes information. And when that information is transmitted, it becomes knowledge again only in another human – through the process of learning.

To use a Confucius analogy of roots and branches: knowledge is root – the essence; and information is branches, which serve the growth of the root.  Leaves of a tree make food by photosynthesis but a tree cannot survive without the root. About acquiring knowledge, Confucius said, in answer to whether he learned many things and kept them in his memory: No, I seek a unity all pervading. In literal translation from Chinese text, he actually said: No, I string through all as one.  Unity of new information with what’s already in the body-brain is learning, and the basis of knowledge.*

Is this process really what happens in our society? Can computers capable of extensive data-processing and analysis produce knowledge? Even wisdom?

Here are some examples I found from various disciplines that appear to support my thesis – and also raising some questions. (BOLD face emphases are mine).


Knowledge management as applied to organizations has seen great advances in the past two decades, based on the so-called data-to-knowledge pyramid shown above. I have written about it here back in 2010 in Say, That’s A Wise Computer – DIKWThere is basic agreement that information is organized data (data + context) and can be transmitted; knowledge (information + experience), is information interpreted and understood – usually by humans. However the wisdom is seen variously as insight, intuitive knowledge, vision, doing the right thing …and (my suggestion) collective knowledge.  But of a pyramidal hierarchy here there is no doubt.

Health & Public Policy

The National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2012 inaugurated the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative:

“BD2K is a trans-NIH initiative established to enable biomedical research as a digital research enterprise, to facilitate discovery and support new knowledge, and to maximize community engagement.”

Big Data is the huge amount of uncoordinated data from multiple sources, many apparently unrelated – especially that from social-psycho research. It can provide “…spectacular opportunities. Big Data methods allow researchers to maximize the potential of existing data and enable new directions for research. Biomedical Big Data can increase accuracy and supports the development of precision methods for healthcare.”

Notice that researchers are still required in decision-making. 

Science – Physics 

The Nobel physicist and great teacher Richard Feynman (USA 1918-1988) in one of his famous lectures on physics in 1961 said:

“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied [learning].”

Science – Biology

In his book, Life’s Engines (2015, p.150) **, the biologist, biochemist, oceanographer, and all around polymath Paul Falkowski (USA b. 1951) discusses our ever-escalating war with microbes that cause diseases. Our overuse of full-spectrum antibiotics have killed off friendly microbe in our body’s microbiome, while pushing the virulent ones to even more deadly types – both in animal husbandry and human health. That’s because microbes evolve rapidly by mutation and easy horizontal gene transfers among themselves (their lives are not precious):

“Regardless who the ultimate winner … is, human knowledge, which is acquired and disseminated globally by horizontal information transfer, has clearly been extremely effective in helping humans temporarily control the planet. Our ongoing war with microbes has led to great victories for humans… The evolution of language and the rapid transfer of information helped reduce microbial control of human population growth…”

Art & the General Public

In art, there’s very little mention of information; and knowledge is still discussed in established philosophical language. In newspapers and magazines, writers often allude to but seldom discuss information and knowledge as related. Even in science, the two examples I cited above are rare – meaning the public is probably not yet tuned in to the concept. Here technology is leading; and happily our taxpayer-supported NIH is also ahead of the game.

But an example speaks a thousand words – what does the phrase ‘The show must go on’ mean? Here’s a quote from Information = Knowledge? :

“The actor Michael Caine once told the story of an early audition as a young actor. The script required him to open a door to walk on stage. But a chair was in the way and he froze. The director told him later never to freeze on stage: if it is a drama, throw the chair; if it is a comedy, trip over it…”

For Caine here, the phrase meant the acting on stage must be smooth and never to be interrupted – improvise if needed but keep going. For most in public, it means ‘the show must go on rain or shine’. So that piece of information can produce different interpretations and different knowledge among people.

Hopefully I have established here that information is different from knowledge and hope to see more examples that either confirm or contradict it – considering how important the concept is in learning and education.

Learning, after all, is what this website is about.


*      In Chinese, the two characters meaning knowledge are “  zhi    shi” – meaning know and understand respectively.

**    My review of Life’s Engines will be published in Leonardo Reviews in early February.

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