Information, Knowledge, and the Gordian Knot of American Life

By Matthew Walker, Ph. D.

(This is the runner-up of our Summer 2020 Essay Contest.)

Crises offer opportunities for the realization of new possibilities.  They focus attention on issues of immediate concern–and rightfully so–but they also offer latent systemic opportunities for reflective pause for individuals and societies.  The stress emanating from this most remarkable year stems in part from two inter-related factors: the persistent misunderstanding of the relationship between information and knowledge and its effects on civil society.  Too often, and for far too long, this dynamic has been misconstrued to the point of intensifying crisis rather than alleviating it.  In comprehending this relationship, examination of the dynamics between science and technology on the one hand and the liberal arts on the other is essential.  In the midst of the current conditions, where patience and perseverance are required, there is a prime opportunity to ease the tension between these concepts to help defuse contemporary crises as well as those of the future.

It is ironic that amidst crises, there should be time enough to ponder differences between information shared and knowledge attained.  Information is crucial for rapid-response, mass mobilization, and maintaining order.  It is data-driven and serves more immediate needs.  Information contributes to courses of action. When crises occur, efforts to inform and be informed remain imperative.  Therefore, information is essential. Knowledge harnesses information as a raw material and processes it for more strategic theoretical and applied uses. Policy best represents the most discernable application. The prudent and practical wisdom involved in devising and launching effective policy acts as the keystone to successful crisis resolution.

Technology has proven itself as a harvester, collecting and disseminating data and information–but knowledge and its application remains an exercise of human agency.  Statistician Nate Silver, inferred this when he wrote: “Who needs theory when you have so much information?  But this is categorically the wrong attitude to take toward forecasting . . . . Statistical inferences are much stronger when backed up by theory or at least some deeper thinking about their root causes.”  Specialists must be skilled in policy formulation and members of society must be enlightened as to its execution.  Yet, because emergencies require the sharing of copious quantities of information, reflection and contemplation are less pronounced.  Throughout many crises populations have acted on information received rather than the knowledge acquired.  Our current series of crises provide possibilities for understanding this historical lesson and applying it in our own age. It is an opportunity we must seize.

Writing in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, political scientist Francis Fukuyama, and professor Danielle Allen detail the effects of the pandemic on institutions and ideological orientation.  Fukuyama contends that American society in particular suffers from a widening gulf of contentious competition between the knowledgeable and the informed.  He writes, “the link between technocratic expertise and public policy is weaker today than in the past, when elites held more power.  The democratization of authority,” he continues, “spurred by the digital revolution has flattened cognitive hierarchies along with other hierarchies, and political decision-making is now driven by often weaponized babble.”  Allen attributes this vacuum to a chronic deficit lying at the heart of civil society where Americans are not knowledgeable as to the institutional infrastructure available to them as citizens of a “constitutional democracy.”  Echoing Silver, Allen continues, the country needs scientific input, but “it also needs people who can interpret the science and make judgment calls that take broader factors into account.”  These ideas have a long history to them that runs throughout the modern era in Western civilization. 

Eras such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and our own Information Age share in a re-occurring paradox.  Each era unleashed a scale of change that placed greater faith in human agency and asked more of humanity; but the scope and pace of change itself was something for which humanity was ill-prepared.  Nate Silver points to Europe’s introduction to the printing press in 1440.  The mass production of books, triggered an “explosion of ideas” with “unintended consequences.”  These consequences run the gamut from the beneficial to the malicious.  Adam Ferguson, a Scottish philosopher writing in 1767, warned his contemporaries of these circumstances in his publication of An Essay on the History of Civil Society.  Ferguson argued that humanity, “in striving to remove inconveniences . . . [arrives] at ends which even [its] imagination could not anticipate.”  In other words, the proliferation of information itself contributes to the likelihood of unforeseeable outcomes.  Cause-and-effect were oversimplified; sums often tended to be larger than their constituent parts.  These paradoxes of process fascinated Ferguson.  These paradoxes stemming from unintended consequences beg two intriguing questions for our era: Why is this paradox so troublesome in the twenty-first century? And, how does this relate to our current series of crises?

To understand the integral nature of these circumstances in our current affairs, we must first comprehend how these circumstances influenced the establishment of American identity as well as our ideas of humanity as a whole.  According to Gordon Wood, a historian of America’s early republic, Ferguson ranks among one of the most influential philosophers whose ideas contributed to the coalescing of Western thought from the eighteenth century onward.  Along with his contemporary Adam Smith, an economist, philosopher, and fellow Scot, Ferguson championed the concept of an ‘invisible hand,’ influencing outcomes in the form of unintended consequences.  These ideas are encoded in America’s social, cultural, and civic sub-consciousness, and often irritate or debunk what are in many cases self-informed, absolutist notions of “self” and “other.”  The most vivid expression of this phenomenon occurred in the closing decades of the eighteenth century involving the ratification of the United States Constitution and the cataclysmic eruptions of the French Revolution.

By 1789, the thirteen American states were coming together under a new form of government while the monolithic French state was coming apart.  For the young American republic, the Constitutional Convention signified an attempt to address unintentional turbulence brought about by the reactionary installation of the Articles of Confederation following the American Revolution.  At its core, the Constitution symbolizes compromise, conciliation, interpretation, and resilience to remain cognizant of Ferguson’s warning.  The alternative could result in the concussive lurching across the socio-political spectrum as encountered throughout the French Revolution.  In France, unintended consequences had been utterly ignored for so long a period of time that when the reckoning came, revolution was not simply reactionary, but “chain-reactionary.”  Unvarnished liberty succumbed to demagoguery and tyranny.  Instead of allowing for unintended consequences and mitigating them, the French experience perpetually fell victim to them.

One of the earliest Americans to understand this paradigm and attend to it was John Adams.  Before the Constitutional Convention of 1787, before his presidency in which he grappled with the fallout from the French Revolution, Adams recognized that in order for the American republic to operate effectively, educating the citizenry was vital.  According to his biographer, Page Smith, Adams considered education and morality “essential in a republic.”  As a result, Adams believed that the state should involve itself in encouraging an educated citizenry, where “‘wisdom and knowledge'” were made widely available to all people.  In this way, citizens would come to understand their rights and liberties as well as establish societies and institutional mechanisms essential to civil society and a republic.  Curricula were to include a healthy balance between the arts and sciences.  Adams recorded his sentiments in his drafting of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 and to which the state’s constitutional convention agreed–unanimously.

And it was not simply a matter of concern for the powers that be of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Members of society from all walks called for the earnest pursuit of knowledge.  Maria Stewart, the black feminist-abolitionist activist, proclaimed “knowledge is power.”  As Vicki Soogrim states on the Women’s Media Center website, “[Stewart] confronted injustice and pushed women to rely on, and define, themselves largely by seeking an education.”  If nothing else, Maria Stewart and John Adams define the modern social contract that we fail at fulfilling here in the twenty-first century.  An educated citizenry must maintain personal interests in pursuing knowledge not only for self-benefit, but also for the benefit of the republic.

Today, many Americans have mastered concepts of self-service but not full-service.  Americans are fluent in acquiring information.  Never has so much been available to so many, so often–which is to say constantly.  News, advice, opinions, blogs, podcasts, do-it-yourself, the avenues open to self-informing are exponential.  Regrettably, however, many–but not all–Americans have mistaken “being informed” with “being knowledgeable.”  Those who tap into electronic media feed off of it, thinking that they are experts simply because they have briefed themselves on a particular issue.  The human element of studying, processing, and evaluating information suffers tremendously.  Information’s accessibility leaves little time to process it all.  To compensate, information comes pre-processed so news and opinion are nearly synonymous.  For many, Americans in particular, all that remains for the individual consumer is to simply agree or disagree with the product.  It is as if the act of being knowledgeable has faded into near-obsolesce and the consequences are tragic.

Professor Danielle Allen and Francis Fukuyama describe these consequences in startling detail.  According to Allen, scientists and technology are imperative in this country but so too are specialists who can assess the scientific data and are mindful of “broader factors” or consequences both intended and, dare we hope, unintended.  She points to a civics deficit where federal programs spend fifty-four dollars per student for STEM fields compared to five cents per student for civics education.  Allen shares other research finding that students from scientific fields of study are “less-likely” to participate in a republic, in which civic activity forms the central strength of governing structures.  Allen’s analysis not only demonstrates the key importance of curricula emphasizing a liberal arts orientation, but more fundamentally expresses the need for a more balanced approach to courses of study–akin to John Adams’s plea.  The information of “how” must be leveraged with the knowledge of “why.”  Fukuyama contends that this chronic lack of commitment to and faith in civic expertise and policy-making undermines “constructive, collective self-examination.”  In synthesizing Allen’s and Fukuyama’s arguments, it is easy to see that citizens less schooled in the liberal arts tradition and in the countless nuances therein may have glaring social blind-spots and even ignorance resulting in maliciousness.  Fukuyama identifies President Trump as a prime example of this phenomenon, exhibited in the president’s catastrophic absence of leadership amidst recent crises.  These trends have a historical precedence.

Much like our own time, Ferguson lived in a socially and politically tumultuous period of history.  In her biographical introduction of Adam Ferguson, Fania Oz-Salzberger’s eloquence expresses the eternal nature of themes prevalent here and now. Living during the socio-political turbulent era of the Enlightenment, Ferguson believed that “public-spirited citizenship . . . was indispensable even in the best of modern polities. . . . The real moral danger in modern times, [Ferguson] said, was not wealth but political laziness.”  In many respects, our own Information Age has encouraged this sense of lethargy.  In interpreting Ferguson’s ideas, Oz-Salberger writes, “what matters, then, is not the wealth amassed by members of society, but the retaining of their political personae: a trader, a craftsman[,] or a ‘man of the world’ must never cease to be a citizen.”  Today, we incorporate other characteristics into our civic identity to the point where individuality and self-worth are paramount.

Thus, we find ourselves facing the heart of the crisis: if individual Americans wish to influence civil society according to independent whim, then each American must understand that it is not enough to be informed; one must pursue knowledge and realize that knowledge is a continually laborious process of exchange and enlightenment.  Put another way, acquiring knowledge is a journey, not a destination.  Where information focuses on obtaining answers, knowledge provides circumspect context and nuance in order to understand consequences.

Again, Ferguson addresses this to an extent in his book.  In his own words, he concludes:

The faculties of penetration and judgment, are, by men of business, as well as of science, employed to unravel intricacies of [natural laws]; and the degree of sagacity with which either is endowed, is to be measured by the success with which they are able to find general rules, applicable to a variety of cases that seemed to have nothing in common, and to discover important distinctions between subjects which the vulgar are apt to confound.

While unquestionably elitist in outlook, and thus sharing an additional similarity with Fukuyama’s deference to expertise, Ferguson also espouses the responsibilities that come with one’s involvement in civil society.  Members of any civil society, and the United States in particular, are being asked “to unravel intricacies” of how the world works and why it works the way it does.  Over two hundred and fifty years after Ferguson, too many of us are woefully unprepared to work harder to understand what sits beyond our own coveted point of view.

To crystallize the true nature and scope of our crisis, we live in a paradox where more people wish to benefit from civil society, yet a rising number of people misunderstand the contributions they are asked to make in return.  Americans have come to think that informing one’s self is a fulfillment of our modern social contract, that the fulfillment of personal ambition and serving civil society are interchangeable.  They are not.  As Oz-Salzberger said of Ferguson’s view of this relationship: “The modern commercial polity was not in itself a bad thing, as long as its citizens retained their interest in public life and avoided the temptation–and the cunning philosophical justification–of a selfish private life.”  Sadly, a vast number of Americans have come to embrace Ferguson’s worst fear.  This has been a constant throughout our twenty-first century troubles including the financial crisis, public health crisis, and even crises over historical narrative.  

Today, members of society are obsessed with answers.  Many Americans think that if we act on the information provided, we are minimizing consequences or removing them entirely.  Armed with information, Americans can conquer all.  The Information Age has exacted a fundamental shift in focus.  With information at our fingertips, we feel empowered to decide matters for ourselves and on our own terms.  When we come to understand otherwise, we blame the information rather than comprehending the realization that there are always consequences.  Adam Ferguson, John Adams, Maria Stewart were particularly aware of unintended consequences.  Americans such as Adams and Stewart recognized that knowledge was the key to understanding and that a balanced education made for the best, most robust civil society.  Leaders and activists such as these contributed to the evolving nature of responsibilities brought about by the central role individuals play in American governance.

Contemporaries such as Francis Fukuyama and Danielle Allen call for reconnecting with and strengthening these philosophical foundations.  Their insistence on reviving trust in professional expertise and interest in the study of civics and the liberal arts are constructive beginnings for developing effective policies and cultivating an engaged society able to grasp their significance. These roots are vital to sustaining our republic and free our society from the pitch and yaw of crisis.  As an added benefit, these measures would help dispel the sense of futility, hopelessness, and despair many Americans experience when human determinism is overwhelmed.  Historian Paul Kennedy, writing in 1993, warned of this in his book Preparing for the Twenty-First Century. “While an impressive array of American individuals, companies, banks, investors, and think tanks are scrambling to prepare for the twenty-first century,” Kennedy wrote, “the United States as a whole is not and indeed cannot, without becoming a different kind of country.”  Intellectually and philosophically speaking, that “difference” may be nothing more than awakening dormant understandings of American identity as a civil society.  When crisis approaches, policies should stand ready for implementation; but, everyone must understand that these are processes and plans that can and would adapt depending on conditions and the rise of unintended consequences.  An informed society can comprehend the former, but only a knowledgeable people has the perseverance to navigate the nuances of the latter.

————–

Matthew Walker’s Bio

Matthew Walker earned his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in U.S. Foreign Relations/International History.  He has over four years of post-secondary teaching experience, participated in international conferences, pursued independent study abroad, and traveled widely.  Currently, he serves as a certified representative of the Tunisian Mediterranean Association for Historical, Social, and Economic Studies.  In this capacity, Matthew serves as a volunteer peer reviewer and advises on matters pertaining to the Association.  His latest research project examines the history of the relationship between civil society and international crisis.  Prior to his gradate career, Matthew worked at a think-tank located in Washington, D.C. and interned on Capitol Hill.  In his free time, Matthew enjoys spending time with his son, playing tennis, and writing.  He can be contacted at mwalker.phd@gmail.com.

References

Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why so Many Predictions Fail–and Some Don’t, (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), p.197.  See also Joseph Gartin, “The Future of Analysis,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 63, No. 2, Extracts, June 2019), p. 4.

Francis Fukuyama, “The Pandemic and Political Order: It Takes a State,” Foreign Policy, Vol. 99, No. 4, (July/August 2020), p. 32.  See also Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-first Century, (New York: vintage Books, 1993), p. 290.

Danielle Allen, “A More Resilient Union: How Federalism Can Protect Democracy From Pandemics,” Foreign Policy, Vol. 99, No. 4, (July/August 2020), p. 36-37.

Sliver, The Signal and the Noise, p. 1-2.

Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 8th Edition, (Philadelphia, PA: A. Finley, 1819), p. 221.

Gordon Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), p. 111.

Wood, The Idea of America, p. 112-113.

Page Smith, John Adams, Vol. I: 1735-1784, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1962), p. 443-444.

Vicki Soogrim, “Lost Women of History: Maria Stewart, the First Black Feminist-Abolitionist in America,” Women’s Media Center, January 18, 2015, www.womensmediacenter.com.

Allen, “A More Resilient Union,” p. 37.

Fukuyama, “The Pandemic and Political Order,” p. 32.

Fania Oz-Salzberger, ed., introduction to An Essay on the History of Civil Society, by Adam Ferguson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. xvi.

Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 8th Edition, (Philadelphia, PA: A. Finley, 1819), p. 48-50.

Fania Oz-Salzberger, ed., introduction to An Essay on the History of Civil Society, by Adam Ferguson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. xix.

Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 324.  Italics in the original.