It’s better to understand something than to know it

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“Knowing” and “understanding” are related concepts, but they’re not the same. Each is a distinct mental state involving cognitive grasp: Knowing is static, referring to discrete facts, while understanding is active, describing the ability to analyze and place those facts in context to form a big picture.

Without knowledge, understanding is impossible. But having knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to understanding of a greater narrative, which is the real point of gathering information.

Yet communications experts don’t make this important distinction. According to new linguistic analysis published Oct. 23 in the journal Public Understanding of Science (paywall), even scientists who write about public comprehension of scientific ideas overwhelmingly conflate the terms “knowledge” and “understanding.” The researchers argue that this linguistic imprecision is problematic—not just for scientists, but for all of us. The advent of the internet has put more information at our fingertips than ever before. Recognizing the deceptions among the meaningful ideas demands, above all, discernment.

Why we gather facts

Understanding is a tool; it helps people assimilate new information and continually refine their worldview by seeing connections. In science, that information is often complicated, and those connections can span centuries. This puts an added onus on scientists to be storytellers skilled in linguistic precision.

Understanding is also necessary to evaluate new information; the more a person can contextualize what they’re being told, and evaluate it from many angles, the less likely they are to be taken in by manipulative language, bad data, poorly sourced stories, or pure propaganda. Likewise, the researchers argue, scientific literacy in the public results from real understanding, and won’t be achieved if what it means to understand isn’t defined and understood.

With that in mind, the study’s authors are looking at how to effectively communicate science to the public (lead author Joanna Huxster is an environmental scientists at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, specializing in scientific communication). Facts must be weaved, analyzed, and contextualized. Linking cause to effect—and deciding what to do next—only happens when knowledge can be coupled with understanding.

Let’s take one example: connecting knowledge of fossil-fuel use rates with heightened global warming. Knowing about this link lends support to the ideas of alternative energy investment and forest conservation. But to reach such a conclusion, you need both information and an ability to acknowledge abstract concepts.

First, you must accept that actions have consequences not immediately visible to you. This premise must then be paired with comprehension of carbon dioxide, its heat-trapping qualities, effects of excess carbon on the Earth’s atmosphere, noxiousness of carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels, and trees’ role in absorbing carbon. And even all that (whew!) only begins to tell the story of global warming, which leads to the need for alternative energy exploration and forest preservation. In other words, there’s a lot to it.

Definitions make a difference

Huxster’s team hypothesized that the public doesn’t get science because scientists are insufficiently rigorous in distinguishing between those two fundamental concepts: “knowledge” and “understanding.” They conducted two linguistic analyses, focusing on articles in Public Understanding of Science. First, they looked at how epistemic terms were defined in all articles published in the journal in 2014. Next, they examined studies between 2010 and 2015 that measured epistemic states, checking how the two concepts were defined and tested.

Even the researchers were surprised at the extent of linguistic confusion they discovered. The majority of articles were sloppy about definitions, using “knowledge” and “understanding” interchangeably. In almost all articles, scientists conflated the two terms. It was “rare” to find precise definitions, they wrote in their report. Meanwhile, in studies measuring epistemic states over six years, the researchers found that “very few” truly gaged understanding—assimilation of new information—versus static knowledge.

This language conflation breeds confusion in science and society, the researchers concluded, and is likely hampering scientific study and public outreach efforts. They believe rigorous distinctions bolster critical thinking and influence how science is communicated and received, and how public understanding is measured. If experts don’t strive for true comprehension, the public won’t be scientifically literate.

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