Sources of Wisdom, Sources of Data

~Graham Zell

Photo by Graham Zell

I’m a big fan of axioms and short, punchy sayings that succinctly encompass complex ideas. One of my favourites is: “Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.” I came across it a couple of years ago in the Avalanche Journal in an article about building skill over time in avalanche forecasting.

The article laid out a framework for thinking of our relationship with the world: what we can sense or understand, how we interpret it, and what we learn from it. A great example is the weather. If I tell you the temperature is eighteen degrees, that’s a data point. If I add that there are tall, dark clouds, cloying humidity, and gusty winds, those data points taken together become information.

You’ve seen this information before; your knowledge tells you an electrical storm is brewing.

Wisdom manifests in your course of action: I shut down my computer, close the windows, stash the lawn furniture, and find a good perch to watch the show.

How does knowledge turn into wisdom? It happens inside us as individuals. There is no shortcut, no way to drink wisdom directly from a teacher. Often it comes with the experience of pain or loss, and sometimes we can understand another’s pain without experiencing it exactly for ourselves. We watch a building fall down, and respond by investigating, understanding, and correcting our actions. We have codified much knowledge and pain in building codes, fire codes, work safety regulations, and food safety standards. If we adhere to these codes, we can trust that we are acting with the wisdom our ancestors learned through blood and loss and pain.

There are many forms in which we codify and transmit social, emotional, medical, technical, strategic, and spiritual wisdom. But we have to be careful: transmission is not a perfect replication process. We cannot pass on wisdom the way we pass on heirlooms; if we try, wisdom ossifies and turn to dogma. We can only pass on knowledge and inspiration, and let those be a seed of wisdom. We have to acknowledge that our wisdom is less universal than we would like it to be, pass on important knowledge, and guide the next generation towards a questioning and understanding attitude.

The Bible is one source of knowledge and inspiration for me. Its value comes from the density of its passages and the way that it has survived and changed and been reinterpreted countless times through millennia. It is wonderful and nourishing as a source of inspiration: we live in changing, uncertain times, and that human experience of uncertainty is comfortingly universal. It could also be deadly, confining, and limiting as a source of dogma; it is, in parts of this continent. The Bible is only one of many sources of knowledge in my life; there are many books, lessons, and stories that balance its perspective and inspire me in different directions. What sources of knowledge are important in your life?

We have access today to more data and more information than ever in the history of humanity. More voices, more stories, more statistics. (More noise, too, but cutting through to find trust is a separate topic.) This moment in history is our time to throw out two pieces of knowledge that many of us have synthesized from the information in our lives:

Our experience is basically universal
The Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, the Truth and Reconciliation movement in Canada, and the uneven impacts of COVID-19 on global society should teach us that our experience of the world is not “normal”. It is not some baseline from which everyone’s success or failure in the world should be measured. Our experience of the world is our own set of data points woven into strands of information, reams of knowledge, and the garments of wisdom that gets us through this massively complex world. Some of us have more diverse sets of data, or richer sets of data, or higher stakes for loss or pain. If we listen to the voices crying out to be heard in protests, podcasts, media, and in the street, maybe we can learn that we don’t know what someone’s experience is until we listen to them. We can’t listen to them until we can meet them where they want to speak.

We need to be ready before we change
COVID-19 is a blessing. It is happening because of very real, identifiable things that we do every day, like go to the office or eat at a restaurant. In BC at least, we have done a solid job of curtailing those activities to limit the harm of the virus. It hasn’t been easy, because we dismantled a whole social system almost overnight and are trying frantically to fit it back together around the reality of the virus. But we’re doing it. That’s the knowledge we need to come away with. It hurts, but we can change hard and fast if we decide to. If we can take that knowledge and use it for courage in the climate crisis, we might call ourselves wise. We have all imagined what might have happened if we had stayed attached to our economic dogmas and kept the world running in the face of the virus. Why are some of us doing the same against the climate crisis?

I think these things that we “know” hold us back from true wisdom and compassion as a society, and as individuals. What will you learn if you let go of your easy answers?