Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Facts, Opinion and Context

Over the years I seen many instances of people stating that discussions are broken down into either facts or opinion. Usually this dichotomy is used as the basis for their not wanting to read or discuss other people’s opinions, precisely because they are not facts.

Facts are the concrete building blocks that we use for knowledge. They are mostly universal (although not always) and tend to be related to specific points in time or objects. Opinions are generally personal views on the facts. They can be anchored in experience, but they may also be emotional or based on intuition. They are usually presented with some sort of bias.

However, there is -- I believe -- more than just these two categories. After all, facts by themselves are meaningless. They’re just points of data, but without the ability to tie them together in some meaningful way their only usefulness is for winning games of Trivial Pursuit. You can know all of the relevant facts, but still have absolutely no real understanding of what they mean, both on a personal level or with regard to the world around you.

What we mean by knowledge is not just the ability to regurgitate facts, but rather “a knowledgeable person” is someone who could utilize the things that they know for discussion and for accomplishing great works. Memorizing all of the syntax of a programming language for example, does not make someone a good programmer. It’s not the language syntax that matters, it is how it is used to build systems. A programmer’s ability to debug something that they didn’t write themselves is a far better indication of their understanding of a technology, then is the ability to just string together a long list of syntactically correct instructions. And it is this understanding that is the key to building some usable.

It is this other category that contains the ability to see the underlying patterns in both facts and experience, and from them build up internal mental models. A set of contexts to hold the empirical data.

Again, we do store facts in our memory,  but our understanding comes from the way we model the world around us in our minds. We can, for instance, memorize that the English word for the property of a glowing stove element is ‘hot’, but that fact needs to be coupled with an internal model that warns us that touching hot things can cause damage to our bodies. Knowing what ‘hot’ is, and what it means, is only useful if someone is able alter their behavior around objects that are ‘hot’. Understanding comes not from memorizing the facts, but instead from updating and being able to utilize these internal models.

Communications -- talking and writing -- are our attempts to share these internal models with others around us. In a sense, our efforts are only shallow projections of our internal models into either speech or the characters that make up a written language. Our internal models are too dense and too interconnected for these limited pathways to fully contain all of what we know. Often, just to get across a simple point, we have to re-iterate the same things over and over again, in many different ways before even the basic aspects of the model have been transferred to others. This limited bandwidth makes sharing what we know difficult at times.

Getting back to my point, when someone divides information up into only facts and opinions, and then ignores the opinions, they pass up -- on so many levels -- the ability to do more than just echo back trivial facts. While discussions in any medium can easily turn into heavily layered personal bias, there is often a strong component of direct knowledge or perceived patterns being shared as well. Some people are better than others at providing ‘objective observations’, but to some degree everything we say or do reveals some of our internal models. To dismiss that, is to choose to not understand more of the world around them, or the essence of a specific problem.

You can’t learn to program from a reference manual on language syntax alone. Sure it will tell you the syntax, variables, grammar, etc. about the language, but it provides no insight on how to utilize these things properly. Reading just a tutorial, if it is written well, provides way more context on which to base your internal models. And it is exactly this context that is necessary in order to utilize the language properly. Some people can get going from just a reference guide, but if you look carefully you can see that their works are highly eclectic, and while they may work sometimes, they certainly shouldn’t be considered to be good, or even reasonable examples.

Understanding the overall context in which things are happening, or are required to happen is essential to being able to build up a complete enough internal model. The ‘ten-thousand foot view’ is just as critical as the facts themselves.

In this sense, when I see people dismiss opinions I know that in their choice to deliberately wear blinders they are denying themselves the access to the necessary resources that will aide their own understanding. My opinion is that, since everything to some degree is related to everything else, there is no knowledge that is useless for people to learn, if and only if they can put the underlying facts correctly into their internal models so that, what they learn, they can use. Programmers for instance can easily make use of an understanding of writing, art or politics, since all three of these “unrelated” knowledge bases easily effect their output. But inspiration, understanding or patterns can come from any other collection of information, no matter how unrelated.

Sometimes it does require some effort to ‘filter’ out the underlying knowledge from an opinion that is not strongly based on either facts or experience, but even in wading into those depths one’s understanding can be greatly enhanced by considering these alternative perspectives. If you read enough different viewpoints, not unlike stereoscopic vision, you become more capable of re-constructing the real factual landscape from all of the different angles. Even the lamest opinion contains usable information, even if it only shows that someone out there can be thinking that way.

Over the years I’ve met lots of people who have filled their brain with a tremendous amount of facts, but very little knowledge. Like the character of Sheldon in the sitcom Big Bang Theory, they tend to believe in their own superiority, even though they are moving awkwardly through the world around them. But its not the facts that make us act smartly, it is how we’ve groked the context and utilized that understanding to create vast internal models that we can then use to smooth the way through this life. Success is not being able to list from memory all of the elements of the period table, in order, but rather being able to dream about accomplishing something, and then finding one’s way through the maze fast enough to make it a reality. Without the ability to utilize them, facts are nothing.