Information and understanding are not the same thing.

Another one I first posted to Facebook:

How to Read a Book was written in the 1940s and revised in the early 1970s. On the first page, it says this, which seems just as relevant today as it would have been then, and probably more so:

“…it may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communication media [television and radio…and today we would add social media and the internet] has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live.

“Perhaps we know more about the world than we used to, and in so far as knowledge is prerequisite to understanding, that is all to the good. But knowledge is not as much a prerequisite to understanding as is commonly supposed. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.

“One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements—all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics—to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think”.

~ from How to Read a Book: by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

3 thoughts on “Information and understanding are not the same thing.

  1. Toni

    The key reason we didn’t obtain a television when we were first married was so that we could make up our own minds about how the world worked. At times it’s been astonishing to see changes in society brought through the power of mass media – an example would the welcome acceptance of lotteries and gambling to become an every-day part of expenditure for millions of ordinary people in Britain in the early 80’s when the national lottery was created.

    I still see it, and COVID-19 has required the BBC to become a voice for government propaganda (quite reasonably) directing people t think & act in certain ways. It’s also evident that they are pushing an agenda of positivity towards homosexual and transgender lifestyle, despite such people making up a small part of the population in comparison to the column inches they get. A recent story included how a gay man was upset by the use of the rainbow symbol to celebrate the British health service, when it has been a symbol of gay pride for 40 years.

    Curious times.

    But we DO need to know both the overview and the accurate data laying underneath in order to understand a situation. Having just the data can make gaining overview difficult, and having overview with no data means that anyone can challenge your view and you cannot defend it. Of course if you’re just going to rely on the ‘cassette tape’ approach then you’re going to have neither, but TBH it’s usually too much effort to argue with people like that, especially if their tape has been engineered carefully to match a very specific world view.

  2. Marc

    It’s exhausting to argue. And it’s exhausting trying to figure out which information and which data I need to know and understand in order to find the truth!

  3. Toni

    “It’s exhausting to argue. And it’s exhausting trying to figure out which information and which data I need to know and understand in order to find the truth!”

    An interesting comment from a man who recently recommended a theological book to me. 😉

    TBH one can navigate quite a bit by sense of smell – if something smells wrong then it usually is.

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