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February 10, 2015 / jpschimel

Data vs. Knowledge: a sorry letter from 1963

Thanks to Andy Hoffman for a column that brought to my attention this letter (Chaos in the Brickyard) that was published in Science in 1963. Already, the author, Dr. Bernard Forscher was concerned that science was increasingly focused on producing “bricks”–little pieces of information, rather than “Edifices”–real bodies of useful knowledge. That was in 1963 people!

Forscher Bricks vs. Edifices

Dr. Forscher wrote this as a parable, but the idea is directly analogous to my distinction between data, information, knowledge, and understanding. Ultimately science is about edifices: knowledge and understanding. Yet many scientists never do more than make bricks–individual nuggets of information.

I think Dr. Forscher was visionary: our reward systems increasingly skew toward rewarding bricks. The more we focus these systems on simple quantitative metrics, such as the Impact Factor of the journal a paper was published in, the more Dr. Forscher’s vision becomes true and the more we end up focused on the “bricks for brick-ness’ sake” rather than on the ultimate goal of building structures.

Reward systems should target direct measures of a scientists contribution to building real structures of knowledge, rather than just on their ability to produce bricks. That is something that peers can usually do easily, and sophisticated network mapping software can do with difficulty (e.g. Thompson Reuters Citation Laureates), but the simple metrics are mostly incapable of–they only measure bricks.

The concerns Dr. Forscher raised in 1963 have only become more extreme as has the importance of the reminder that to have real impact as a scientist, you need to force yourself and your trainees to aim for edifices. The ultimate goal of science is to advance human understanding. We build our great edifices of understanding out of individual pieces of information (bricks), but a brick’s value is only as great as its contribution to an edifice. A brick, by itself, on it’s own and isolated, remains a block of clay and straw. The papers that ultimately matter are those that offer more than just information–they offer real knowledge and insight.

Andy Hoffman’s column is available at: (http://chronicle.com/article/Isolated-Scholars-Making/151707/)

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