Okay so these are three paragraphs, but they are in sum one of the wisest things I’ve read about the kinds of knowledge we have, or seek, that we tend too often to forget are so variegated. John D’Agata fans will recall a similar distinction made in About A Mountain between wisdom, knowledge, and information. This one—with its metaphor and its understanding of history—is way better. From “Data-Driven” in the 3 April 2023 New Yorker, by Jill Lepore, who just never disappoints:
[I]magine that all the world’s knowledge is stored, and organized, in a single vertical Steelcase filing cabinet. Maybe it’s lime-bean green. It’s got four drawers. Each drawer has one of those little paper-card labels, snug in a metal frame, just above the drawer pull. The drawers are labelled, from top to bottom, ‘Mysteries,’ ‘Facts,’ ‘Numbers,’ and ‘Data.’ Mysteries are things only God knows, like what happens when you’re dead. That’s why they’re in the top drawer, closest to Heaven. A long time ago, this drawer use to be crammed full of folders with names like ‘Why Stars Exist’ and ‘When Life Begins,’ but a few centuries ago, during the scientific revolution, a lot of those folders were moved into the next drawer down, ‘Facts,’ which contains files about things humans can prove by way of observation, detection, and experiment. ‘Numbers,’ second from the bottom, holds censuses, polls, tallies, national averages—the measurement of anything that can be counted, ever since the rise of statistics, around the end of the eighteenth century. Near the floor, the drawer marked ‘Data’ holds knowledge that humans can’t know directly but must be extracted by a computer, or even by an artificial intelligence. It used to be empty, but it started filling up about a century ago, and now it’s so jammed full it’s hard to open.
From the outside, these four drawers look alike, but, inside, they follow different logics. The point of collecting mysteries is salvation; you learn about them by way of revelation; they’re associated with mystification and theocracy; and the discipline people use to study them is theology. The point of collecting facts is to find the truth; you learn about them by way of discernment; they’re associated with secularization and liberalism; and the disciplines you use to study them are law, the humanities, and the natural sciences. The point of collecting numbers in the form of statistics—etymologically, numbers gathered by the state—is the power of public governance, you learn about them by measurement, they’re associated with the rise of the administrative state; and the disciplines you use to study them are the social sciences. The point of feeding data into computers is prediction, which is accomplished by way of pattern detection. The age of data is associated with late capitalism, authoritarianism, techno-utopianism, and a discipline known as data science, which has lately been the top of the top hat, the spit shine on the buckled shoe, the whir of the whizziest Tesla.
All these ways of knowing are good ways of knowing. If you want to understand something—say, mass shootings in the United States—your best best is to riffle through all four of these drawers. Praying for the dead is one way of wrestling with something mysterious in the human condition: the capacity for slaughter. Lawyers and historians and doctors collect the facts; public organizations like the FBI and the CDC run the numbers. Data-driven tech analysts propose ‘smart guns’ that won’t shoot if pointed at a child and ‘gun-detection algorithms’ able to identify firearms-bearing people on their way to school. There’s something useful in every drawer. A problem for humanity, though, is that lately people seem to want to tug open only that bottom drawer, ‘Data’, as if it were the only place you can find any answers, as if only data tells because only data sells.
If you’ve ever wondered why someone would major in English, or the Humanities in general, it’s because what we learn is how to move those folders heavenward.