Knowledge and Information LO30731

From: Philip Keogh (
Date: 10/21/03

Replying to LO30706 --

Hi At and all.

It's an old chestnut now (Knowledge and Information) but this topic
still seems to be running. There is such a lot of life left in it
because our perceptions of what knowledge is, have in many cases,
changed from its historical perspective as being on the same plane
as data and information to being on a different level (hierarchy)

I would like you to consider the following:

"Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't
mttaer in waht oredr the Itteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt
tihng is taht frist and Isat Itteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset
can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs
is bcuseae we do not raed ervey Iteter by it slef but the wrod as a

I suspect that if you are reasonably good at reading and
comprehending English, the above paragraph will not have presented
you with too many problems. If however, English is not your native
tongue or you are not very proficient at it, it may well have been a
struggle to read. Young children also have a problem with it even
though they may well speak good English for their age. Why?

One can look at the paragraph from a number of perspectives.

At a lower lever we have the presence of data (the actual letters,
spaces, punctuation marks -characters). At this level it matters not
a jot what order the data is in, it is simply data. A collection of
characters from a larger set of data (of all known characters). The
distinction I like here, and I think I have mentioned it before on
this group, is the one used by Checkland. The main data set or
population from which the subset is taken is known as data and the
subset, the limited number of characters on which we are going to
work, as capta. It may be purely cosmetic, but for me it always
reinforces the fact that the data we usually work on is a sample
from a larger population.

The next level is the organisation of the characters. Here the
organisation may be for aesthetic, artistic reasons or the
organisation may be to provide information. In the above paragraph
many of the character formations are meaningless and convey no
information (Important -- look only at the formation of the
characters into individual groups NOT at what is trying to be said)
(subsidiary question: what is a group? what is the delimiter? --
already we are ascribing meaning without meaning to!!!). It is
easier to see this if you try take yourself as an intelligent
observer out of the system. Look at it mechanically character by
character, shape by shape.

Next level. Fortuitously or otherwise, some of the letter groupings
form valid words in English. Many don't. Some may even form valid
words in other languages? These valid words, on their own, have a
meaning or definition in a dictionary (e.g. a, to, an, the). Looking
at these words individually one may make some meaning of them. The
meaning that I ascribe to a word however, may be different to the
meaning you give it -- despite what the dictionary defines it as.
Here, we now have the words and the nonsense words acting as capta
of the paragraph. A level within a level. A fractal?

So we can get some meaning from the valid words, but what about the
nonsense. How do we convert the others to valid words and from there
to sentences and paragraphs? For many of us, like the paragraph
describes, we do not see the words, but pictures of words, and
sometimes the landscape (or order of the words) disjointed. For the
very proficient words merge into groups of words and meaning is
attributed to groups of words and sentences.

Knowing this, can we teach someone to understand the above
paragraph. We can explain the mechanism involved, how characters
make words, how words have meanings and how these words and meanings
can be grouped together to produce more meanings. Very much like we
teach people to read and write. But there is something more that is
missing. Our experiences, the life we lead, the things we already
know, and don't know - shape our knowing. This shaping then governs
the meaning that we attribute to what we perceive.

Without a person, the paragraph is a mark of ink on paper, glowing
phosphor on a screen. It is only with the presence of a person that
it can be converted into something more. A person, with their
knowledge converts it into characters, words, mis-spellt words,
sentences paragraphs. It is the person who attributes meaning at all
stages and the meaning that an author may give to a piece may not be
the meaning that is attributed to it by a reader. Experience will
mould and modify it.

If is decide to save that paragraph above to a web page, a sheet of
paper, a file on a disk -- am I saving knowledge?

At best, I would say I was saving capta (data), possibly information
(it may depend on context) for the paragraph on its own may not mean
anything. However from the data (capta) and information that may be
there, with the presence of a mind, a transformation takes place. A
higher level of abstraction becomes evident -- knowledge emerges.

There is perhaps a bit of a paradox taking place here with the
discussion on knowledge and learning. Are we trying to define what
knowledge is, at the same level and with the same language that we
define data and information. If knowledge is at a different level
from data and information, then trying to solve the paradox at the
lower level will fail. We need to move to the higher level to find
the successful solution.

Finally -- to close this response, a small poem I penned some years
ago while thinking about this. It is not yet finished so bear with

ICONICS. By Philip Keogh.

What are these iconics
that march across the page
in regimented rows
Bringing news to all of age.

What hieroglyphs are illuminated here
that pictorially state
not what they are within themselves
but what lies in wait.

And what of the reader
who gazes on in awe.
Do they see the meaning
or what they think they saw.

If they should be knowing
and gaze upon the text
will they see the writing
or what is coming next.

And if they see the whole
do they miss the finer point
or do they know what they have done
and repair that broken joint.

What passion then is there contained
within those hallowed pens.
None! Some would say, it lives alone
within the frame of men.

These letters then that span the page
what is it that they pledge?
No promise do they make or break
but feed instead -- knowledge.

Best regards

Philip Keogh
Pathology Information Officer
(see our website at


"Philip Keogh" <>

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