Sunday, August 23, 2009

More Knowledge Quotations

Information is not knowledge
- Albert Einstein

Knowledge is no value unless you put it into practice
- Anton Chekhov

Take the two famous quotes above and you actually run smack into an ongoing controversy among those who study knowledge in general and political knowledge in particular. Is what people know sufficient to assume sophistication? Those who study expertise or sophistication or similar constructs would argue no, that knowledge itself is necessary but not sufficient. It's not what ya know, it's what ya know and how ya use it that matters.

This gets at how we measure knowledge. In political studies, we rely heavily on those civics class questions of who is Nancy Pelosi or what party controls the U.S. House of Representatives. We assume if you can rattle off the answers correctly, you're somehow more knowledgeable than those who cannot -- but we rarely build into our models how people use such information, if at all. Exceptions are when we see studies of how people organize their political world, often along partisan or ideological lines, and the role civics/textbook knowledge plays in all that.

Studies of sophistication, they use knowledge, but they also tend to use other factors in a multidimensional (and often muddy) construct. In other words, I'm not sure we gain all that much in our studies of "expertise" and "sophistication," which brings us back to our tired yet true measures of civics knowledge. They're simple, they hang together well (Cronbach's Alpha is usually in the .70s), and they have years of previous research to back 'em up. So we default to the conceptual safe ground.

But information, as the good professor notes above, is not knowledge.

It's an interesting problem for those of us who mess with these concepts, who try to analyze and predict based on them, who desperately need to publish in academic journals for promotion or tenure or a better raise (when there are raises and not furloughs). For me it's mostly an interesting intellectual exercise, and eventually I'd love to create to final, best, ultimate measure of sophistication that makes actual sense. Or, failing that, a knowledge measure that answers many of the criticisms I mentioned above, and the many I've not bothered here to get into (but have discussed in other posts).

Maybe it's time for a Political Wisdom construct.


Here's my model, the old guys you'd see around the table at some diner, sipping coffee and arguing politics, and some snotty college kid sits down and can tell them all the names they get wrong, the little factoids they get confused, but when it comes to knowing -- the old guys beat the snotty kid every time (in this scenario, I was once the snotty kid...long story). It's how you use information, how you make sense of the world, that matters most. Hence my new construct -- Political Wisdom.

And no, I have absolutely no idea how to measure it, especially in a telephone survey.

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