Knowledge is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education. I’m going to focus on fact and informational aspects in this post. Skills are important, but unless they are verbal, I’m not concerned with them here.
In conversation, we use the word knowledge for four distinct aspects of informational knowledge: facts, evaluations, explanations, and predictions.
Often, people call diverse bits of knowledge facts but that is too loose for precise logic and communication. The current bugaboo fake news is a label for evaluations and explanations which are erroneously treated as facts.
- Facts are occurrences in the past and present that can be independently verified. These are objective fragments of knowledge.
Masquerading as Facts
- Evaluations meld facts with a personal belief system (aka value-laden observations). These are subjective arrangements of facts into a larger structure. You may agree with some, most, none, or all of another’s evaluations. If you disagree with some basic premises of another person’s belief set, that person’s evaluation of the usefulness of some facts may not be shared by you.
- Explanations that unite facts under a theory (aka theory-laden observations). These are also subjective, but instead of personal values being the reason, theoretical reasons are used. The theories are presumed true, so conclusions based on facts and the theory will be taken as true. While I merely see a trail in a Wilson cloud chamber, a physicist sees the action of a charged particle. The physicist’s set of facts is different from mine.
- Predictions are forecasts of the future based on facts, evaluations, and explanations. One’s picture of the future is subjective, comprising fragments of facts, pieces of personal beliefs, and various current theories, all combined together.
Examples of Knowledge Types
Facts themselves have two flavors, binary and blended.
- Binary. Yea or nay. We had a party for your birthday. True or False. An occurrence which can be checked and validated.
- Blended. Does true or false cover the many meanings of the statement? It helped the Iraqis that we disposed Saddam. It’s a historical circumstance, but Iraqis are not a monolithic people. For the Shias who weren’t killed, maybe yes. For the Sunnis who weren’t killed, mostly not.
- Blended. There are multiple factors to the situation’s occasion. You are a good student. Are you currently hungover from a campus open house? Does the scope of the statement include all subjects or only those that interest you? The statement may be a true fact only when additional qualifications are granted. Such as, You are a good student, whenever you are not hungover and only in subjects you care about.
- Blended. Statistical truths. The chance of rain is 75% tomorrow in the county.
When people apply their personal value system to a fact, the result is an evaluation, not a fact.
- It’s good we went to war in Iraq.
One’s evaluation may depend on multiple assumptions, facts (simple and compound) and overarching worldview.
Closely related to an evaluation is an explanation. The distinction is that an explanation involves an assessment of the fact based on understanding rather than on personal values. Often, an evaluation supports the explanation.
- The Middle East exploded because we left Iraq too quickly.
If a person considers what he/she knows about the Middle East and the Iraq War and comes to this conclusion, he/she has formed an explanation.
From facts, evaluations, and explanations, a person often makes predictions about the future that form the basis of actions and plans.
- The Fed increasing rates will damage the US economy. One’s prediction depends on the economic situation, personal financial situation, and one’s knowledge of past economic actions. It is also affected by our understanding of the theories relating economic variables, and a myriad of other factors involved in the US economy, which are not mentioned in the statement above.
The relation between the federal interest rates and economic growth is not known with any certainty; however, every financial wizard and most individual investors have an opinion–and act on that opinion. That’s all well and good, but remember predictions are not facts and not certain.