“… it’s easy, and it’s seductive, to assume that data is really knowledge. Or that information is, indeed, wisdom. Or that knowledge can exist without data. And how easy, and how effortlessly, one can parade and disguise itself as another. And how quickly we can forget that wisdom without knowledge, wisdom without any data, is just a hunch.” —Toni Morrison (2019) The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Data needs knowledge to understand it. Those who have this knowledge can then create information about the data to help others understand it. This is why there are so many different interpretations of complex issues. We have limited data and limited knowledge. Therefore experts often disagree. Each expert comes with a different story. Some groups share a story which influences their judgement. But wisdom is being able to understand knowledge and data in context and then make appropriate decisions. Without enough good data, we have no foundation for our knowledge.
Knowledge alone is inadequate to deal with complexity. We need sufficient good data plus the ability to make sense of it. It requires a combination of the best of the humanities plus the best of science.
The isolation between the sciences and the humanities limits our ability to understand the world. We see this with a total lack of ethics among the surveillance capitalists of silicon valley. Technology often lacks a moral compass. The humanities lack an understanding of technology.
“Scientists and scholars in the humanities, working together, will, I believe serve as the leaders of a new philosophy, one that blends the best and most relevant from these two branches of learning.” —E.O. Wilson
I frequently refer to how the authors of The Age of Discovery liken our current era to the European Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries. The Renaissance brought wonderful new discoveries — universities, astronomy, print — as well as new challenges — the pox, war, mass slavery . Our age is bringing similar discoveries — nano materials, gene therapy, artificial intelligence — and new threats — Ebola, extremism, climate change. Today, we are in desperate need of combinatorial and more diverse thinking.
What we need today are more neo-generalists, who do not fit easily into a simple classification of expertise or discipline. Neo-generalists cross boundaries, and some break them. They see patterns before others do, as Kenneth Mikkelsen notes in his own experience that neo-generalists, “live on the edge of the future and detect signals early on by accessing a wide variety of people, ideas, and information.” They go against hundreds of years of industrial cultural programming.
“Yet we continue with a polemic today that can be traced back at least to the time of the Renaissance, evidenced by an artificial schism between the arts and the sciences … It is why the current advocacy of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM subjects, by policy makers and funding bodies seems so misguided. They are essential, but so too is the study of the humanities … It is through the hybridization of and cross-pollination between such disciplines that we will arrive at solutions for our wicked problems.” —The Neo-generalist
Our emerging Renaissance requires us to understand and work with the vast amount of data now available to us. It requires cooperation between disciplines that may merge or disappear over time. With challenges like climate chaos facing us, we need connected thinking — humans and machines.
“Climate change is based on science. But if you delve into it deeply enough it is a kind of mysticism without mystification, a recognition of the beautiful interconnection of all life and the systems – weather, water, soil, seasons, ocean pH – on which that life depends. It acknowledges that everything is connected, that to dig up the carbon that plants so helpfully sequestered in the ground over eons and burn it so that returns to the sky as carbon dioxide changes the climate, and that this changed climate isn’t just warmer, it’s more chaotic, in ways that break these elegant patterns and relationships.” —The Guardian 2019-03-19