Like so many other catchphrases of our data-driven age, I had heard the mantra about “being informed” a thousand times before I actually paused and processed it long enough to figure out what it actually means, if anything; and to judge for myself whether or not it was good advice. As it turns out, it isn’t. And this is my attempt to suggest why.
Everyone wants to see things the way they really are; everyone wants the truth. However, truth requires two things: information and understanding. These two ingredients could also be called “knowledge and wisdom,” or “facts and interpretation.” The point of this article is to suggest that, if you look only at the first ingredient in each pair without looking at the second, you will end in frustrated, albeit very informed, impotence.
Knowledge is what you get when you are becoming “informed.” It is the easy part— the extremely easy part—because of the information age in which we live. I can sit on the couch eating potato chips and become “informed” without ever having to think at all. “Being informed” is an exercise in passivity. Computers are informed, but computers are also stupid. They do not think; they carry out instructions. They have information; they do not have understanding. You can “inform” them right off a cliff.
We all know of people on opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum that are each highly informed, but who hold opposite opinions about everything. One must be wrong, and the other right — or perhaps they are both wrong. Regardless, this shows that simply being informed does not guarantee you access to the truth.
When a media pundit tells us that such-and-such “was not what this country was founded on” and we choose to take him at his word, then we have been informed. In contrast: if we listen to him, read the Federalist Papers, and synthesize his information with our own experience in order to determine the truth for ourselves, then we are approaching “understanding.” We are then not simply dealing in facts, but in discernment.
This is why a slogan telling people to “be informed” is quite harmful. It tells society that being passively informed is an appropriate path to truth. It subtly says to them “here are the facts, don’t bother yourself about the interpretation.” The fact of the matter is: the facts always need interpretation. If anyone tells you differently — if anyone suggests that it is a matter only of being informed — it is probably because they prefer to do the interpretation for you.
In this way, the slogan “be informed” results in a public which is constantly discouraged from actually forming opinions for itself. Instead, opinions are formed without their knowledge, neatly packaged, along with a few carefully selected “facts,” and then delivered to them via Fox News, CNN, or some other opinion manufacturing service.
Page 2 of 2 - Come to think of it, isn’t it sort of funny that television stations commonly refer to their services as “programming?”
The educator Mortimer Adler observed that such services give a man the pleasant and satisfying feeling of having made up his own mind, when actually he “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.”
Thomas Merton, the Christian mystic, observes the same thing, saying that this results in an unthinking man: “He does not talk, he produces conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises. He does not think, he secretes clichés.”
In agreement with Adler, I sense that our public is sometimes “inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.” I hold that the public does not need to be completely informed in order to see the truth of certain things; it needs much more a capacity for discernment. This should be a great relief for two reasons: first, the only scenario in which mere “data” can be trusted is one in which have all the data, and that is impossible; second, too much information often just gets in the way. For example, the field of economics is now so flooded with intricate theories that the most obvious absurdities become invisible behind a barrage of misleading terminology and abstract “expertise.”
Thomas Jefferson was right when he said that the plowman was better equipped for lofty moral decisions than the professor. He said that the professor would be very informed, but that his wealth of knowledge was just as likely to fog his vision as it was to clarify it. Jefferson knew that we could think for ourselves. Listen to facts; absorb knowledge.
But the road to truth lies in understanding, which lies in wisdom, which lies beyond merely “being informed.”
This column is dedicated to social philosophy, religion and all other subjects that seek to keep us sane. If you have any related questions or suggestions that you would like to see explored here, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.