Thursday, November 7, 2013

Knowledge vs information

Dai's Shed, Pembrokeshire - windy Sunday, cold fingers as I drew.

Last week on BBC's Autumnwatch a viewer sent in a photograph of some moth eggs. The presenters couldn't identify them, so they asked for experts to email the answer.  As this was happening, one of the crew suggested that years ago they'd have let the eggs hatch, reared the caterpillars, and arrived at the answer the hard way.

At which point Chris Packham made an aside which struck me as interesting. Yes, he asserted, and that's the difference between acquiring knowledge and simply finding information!

My first response was negative.

I'm suspicious of the rather Protestant notion that information which isn't hard-won is somehow less valuable than that which comes more easily.  In the early days of the Internet this view was especially rife - but who would want to go back to the days when Encyclopaedia Britannica was the oracle?  And how many of us went along to the library every week to turn its dusty pages?

But as I reflected I softened a little.

Not least because I was one of the nerds who actually raised the caterpillars. I also drew and photographed them, wrote details of their development, and ingrained on my brain, details of their lifecycle and physiology that I'd have long forgotten if acquired in seconds from a website.

Drawing is a particularly apt analogy.  John Ruskin said that its purpose was to train the eye and not the hand - and he's right. I know of no better way to understand at an object than to render it on paper - photography doesn't come close. Interestingly, almost any book on amateur astronomy will recommend that the enthusiast draws what they see through the telescope.

The point about drawing is that it requires intense concentration - as does philosophy, and writing..  any activity which fully absorbs us. I'd bet musicians and mathematicians and athletes experience something similar.  And it seems to me that there's something about that process of immersion which allows 'information' to transcend into what Packham calls ' acquired knowledge'.

Before writing this post I looked at some of my old sketchbooks. They still arouse vivid memories, not only of the subjects but of when and where I drew them; how I felt at the time.

That is knowledge of the deepest kind and something which Google - or Autumnwatch for that matter - can never begin to equal.


  1. Thoughtful post Mark

    And I am liking Chris Packham lately for many reasons.

  2. Completely agree with your sentiments on drawing.... the intense observation involved the first step in understanding a living organism, rather than just recording its existence.

    The argument for raising insects from their larvae is equally applicable to growing plants from seed - once you have grown native wild flowers from seed it becomes much easier to ID them when they're not in flower.

  3. Knowledge that you earn and make your own - that becomes part of you through experience - is always going to be of greater value than something you merely look up or are told.

  4. The older I get the more I realize not only do learn more by doing I also enjoy it so much more. It's great to be able to quickly look something up on the internet but where's the fun?

  5. This post reminds me of my MIL, who couldn't bear us donating her local history archive - she's written dozens of books on the subject - to the library. She hated the idea of her knowledge so hard won being made available to others for them to use it so easily. I wonder what she thinks about the internet...

  6. Learning by doing stays with me....I had to concentrate on it, to extract all i could.

    Being told something tends not to stay...