On Information, Knowledge and Wisdom


A close up view of index cards, each bookmarked with a different kind of food

I believe filtering information is a crucial part of my daily work. I get paid to go through a lot of information and find the small but important details that can make a real difference. These details could be considered knowledge, which means useful information for my current task. After I find and act on this knowledge, I often think about what I’ve done. These thoughts lead me to explore the differences between information, knowledge, and wisdom.

What makes information different from knowledge? It’s all about how useful it is in the specific problem we’re dealing with.

An excellent example of this difference is found in Dan Kahneman’s book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow.’ In the beginning of the book, Kahneman admits that the information he presents might not be very helpful for making personal decisions. Instead, he offers it as a way to indirectly evaluate how others make decisions. He honestly says that if someone is reading the book solely for personal growth, they won’t gain any knowledge as we define it. Yet, the book is still considered a self-help masterpiece.

But, if knowledge is useful information, what distinguishes it from true wisdom? It’s all about how applicable it is. Knowledge only becomes wisdom when it’s skilfully used in real-life situations. Or alternatively: when knowledge becomes embodied within our actions.

Let’s take baking as an example. A recipe is a clear guide that helps us bake and gain culinary expertise. In this case, we can easily apply knowledge from a recipe to learn the skill of baking. By my definition, it wouldn’t be too far off to say that recipe books, along with checklists and other instructional texts, are some of the wisest resources for beginners in a skill. This idea lines up with the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, which says that beginners need constant procedural guidance to take their first steps.

However, in certain fields, directly applying knowledge takes a lot of effort. This is often because chances to use that knowledge might not come up often. In these cases, it’s crucial to memorise the knowledge so we can quickly access it when we need it. Medicine is a perfect example, as doctors must recall and put together a lot of information rapidly to diagnose and treat patients effectively. Similarly, skills related to relationships or mental health often require immediate use in unexpected situations, emphasising the need for quick recall and application.

In conclusion, the process of filtering information, extracting knowledge, and applying it skilfully is vital in developing the many life skills we need. By following the journey from information to wisdom through thoughtful reflection and deliberate practice, we can navigate complex challenges and grow our ability to cope in the world.