Knowledge is not a disease

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.308.6926.475 (Published 12 February 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:475
  1. I O Azuonye
  1. Claybury Hospital, Woodford Bridge, Essex IG8 8BY.

    EDITOR, - I found Graham Hills's editorial on knowledge surprising for many reasons.1 Firstly, Hills uses such terms as “knowledge,” “learning,” “skills,” and “reality” without defining them or making clear the denotations he applies to them. I do not believe that Hills intended a discourse on the theory of knowledge,2,3 but he should have made clear that he was writing about theoretical knowledge - that is, information - rather than practical knowledge.

    He contends that information is bad for us because it decays (an inappropriate verb that conjours up images of radioisotopes) and because old information stored in our brains prevents us from acquiring new information (just as if our brains had a 50 megabyte capacity and we would no longer be able to take in new information once that capacity was used up). Hills even goes on to blame such phenomena as prejudice and adherence to tradition on an excess of information. To describe this article as ridiculous is to accord to whole-hearted praise.

    “Skills are rooted in reality,” Hills writes, “knowledge is not.” I wonder what he means by the word “reality” and why he thinks that information does not have a basis in reality. What is more, information is not, and cannot be, a disease, irrespective of the degree of abstraction we may choose to apply to the word disease.

    Information, even false information, is not a problem in its own right and cannot harm us in any way. It is the uncritical acceptance of information that is the true enemy of humankind. This is the basis of prejudice, of adherence to tradition, of the political and economic tragedies to which Hills refers. This, not an excess of information, is the real obstacle to progress. As we learn how to think we become able to convert information into (practical) knowledge and eventually into wisdom. Information is not luggage; its acquisition is the first step on the path to wisdom.


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