Sunday, July 31, 2005

Knowledge is Power?

Question: Is "Knowledge is Power" a useful philosophy?
Answer: Yes and no.

No one can doubt the value of knowledge. We seek it, we create it, we pay for it, we desire it. So why do I bristle when I hear that particular saying. Because it's dangerous. Let me explain.

The phrase "knowledge is power" is incomplete. First, the "power" portion is not defined. In fact, the real power does not come from the knowledge itself but from the ability to act on the knowledge. The easiest way to explain my point is to toss up the example of a smoker. Most, if not all, smokers know that smoking is bad for their health. They have seen the films, read the articles and heard the warnings. And yet many smokers continue to smoke. In fact, many smokers will die from their addiction. Why? Because they lacked the ability to act on their knowledge. Their knowledge had no power (or insufficient power) to change their actions.

Second, the "knowledge" portion of the phrase isn't defined. Here are a couple of examples to make this point. When you're a child, you learn that crossing the street can't be done without an adult and that "knowledge" keeps you safe. In other words, knowledge can be relative. Those distributing the "knowledge” can also be wrong. Remember the media frenzy over oat bran and its effect on cholesterol? Someone was wrong in that case but what if false information is distributed intentionally. It happens all the time. Anyone from a small time con man to a power hungry politician can use knowledge to manipulate people for nefarious reasons. So the phrase "knowledge is power" is incomplete and without real meaning.

The biggest problem I have with the phrase is that it sets someone up to rely solely on "knowledge." This generally turns off a person’s intuition and makes them susceptible to incorrect/incomplete knowledge or susceptible to those that would manipulate them. Operating under the notion that this false knowledge is still "powerful," they will make incorrect decisions.

The next time you hear someone say "knowledge is power," let this post run through your mind and ask yourself these questions.
1. Does the knowledge fit into what I have already proven to be true and useful?
2. Does acting on this knowledge improve my life in a meaningful way?
3. Does my acting on this knowledge help me or does it help someone else for some undisclosed agenda?

Open a critical eye when you hear the phrase "knowledge is power." You'll be better for it.