Knowledge is Power, but Power is no Substitute for Knowledge


W.J. Astore

Francis Bacon is famous for the aphorism, “Knowledge is power.”  Yet the reverse aphorism is not true.  The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, yet its knowledge base is notably weak in spite of all that power.  Of course, many factors contribute to this weakness.  Our public educational systems are underfunded and driven by meaningless standardized test results.  Our politicians pander to the lowest common denominator.  Our mainstream media is corporate-owned and in the business of providing info-tainment when they’re not stoking fear.  Our elites are in the business of keeping the American people divided, distracted, and downtrodden, conditions that do not favor critical thinking, which is precisely the point of their efforts.

All that is true.  But even when the U.S. actively seeks knowledge, we get little in return for our investment.  U.S. intelligence agencies (the CIA, NSA, DIA, and so on) aggregate an enormous amount of data, then try to convert this to knowledge, which is then used to inform action.  But these agencies end up drowning in minutiae.  Worse, competing agencies within a tangled bureaucracy (that truly deserves the label of “Byzantine”) end up spinning the data for their own benefit.  The result is not “knowledge” but disinformation and self-serving propaganda.

When our various intelligence agencies are not drowning in minutiae or choking on their own “spin,” they’re getting lost in the process of converting data to knowledge.  Indeed, so much attention is put on process, with so many agencies being involved in that process, that the end product – accurate and actionable knowledge – gets lost.  Yet, as long as the system keeps running, few involved seem to mind, even when the result is marginal — or disastrous.

Consider the Vietnam War.  Massive amounts of “intelligence” data took the place of knowledge.  Data like enemy body counts, truck counts, aircraft sorties, bomb tonnages, acres defoliated, number of villages pacified, and on and on.  Amassing this data took an enormous amount of time; attempting to interpret this data took more time; and reaching conclusions from the (often inaccurate and mostly irrelevant) data became an exercise in false optimism and self-delusion.  Somehow, all that data suggested to US officialdom that they were winning the war, a war in which US troops were allegedly making measurable and sustained progress.  But events proved such “knowledge” to be false.

Of course, there’s an acronym for this: GIGO, or garbage (data) in, garbage (knowledge) out.

In this case, real knowledge was represented by the wisdom of Marine Corps General (and Medal of Honor recipient) David M. Shoup, who said in 1966 that:

I don’t think the whole of Southeast Asia, as related to the present and future safety and freedom of the people of this country, is worth the life or limb of a single American [and] I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty bloody dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own design and want, that they fight and work for. And if, unfortunately, their revolution must be of the violent type…at least what they get will be their own and not the American style, which they don’t want…crammed down their throat.

But few wanted to hear Shoup and his brand of hard-won knowledge, even if he’d been handpicked by President Kennedy to serve as the Commandant of the Marine Corps exactly because Shoup had a reputation for sound and independent thinking.

Consider as well our rebuilding efforts in Iraq after 2003.  As documented by Peter Van Buren in his book “We Meant Well,” those efforts were often inept and counterproductive.  Yet the bureaucracy engaged in those efforts was determined to spin them as successes.  They may even have come to believe their own spin.  When Van Buren had the clarity and audacity to say, We’re fooling no one with our Kabuki dance in Iraq except the American people we’re sworn to serve, he was dismissed and punished by the State Department.

Why?  Because you’re not supposed to share knowledge, real knowledge, with the American people.  Instead, you’re supposed to baffle them with BS.  But Van Buren was having none of that.  His tell-all book (you can read an excerpt here) captured the Potemkin village-like atmosphere of US rebuilding efforts in Iraq.  His accurate knowledge had real power, and for sharing it with the American people he was slapped down.

Tell the truth – share real knowledge with the American people – and you get punished.  Massage the data to create false “knowledge,” in these cases narratives of success, and you get a pat on the back and a promotion.  Small wonder that so many recent wars have gone so poorly for America.

What the United States desperately needs is insight.  Honesty.  A level of knowledge that reflects mastery.  But what we’re getting is manufactured information, or disinformation, or BS.  Lies, in plainspeak, like the lie that Iraq had in 2002 a large and active program in developing WMD that could be used against the United States.  (Remember how we were told we had to invade Iraq quickly before the “smoking gun” became a “mushroom cloud”?)

If knowledge is power, what is false knowledge?  False knowledge is a form of power as well, but a twisted one.  For when you mistake the facade you’re constructing as the real deal, when you manufacture your own myths and then forget they’re myths as you consume them, you may find yourself hopelessly confused, even as the very myths you created consume you.

So, a corollary to Francis Bacon: Knowledge is power, but as the United States has discovered in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere, power is no substitute for knowledge.

11 thoughts on “Knowledge is Power, but Power is no Substitute for Knowledge

  1. In the US today I think we can safely say that “ignorance is power”. We see one of our two political parties has raised ignorance to the the level of wisdom. And both parties have defunded the public school system in order to make education a profit center rather than a learning center.

  2. I was surprised by the absence of the simple word “wisdom” in the original article. The US Military Beast believes its power obviates any need for wisdom, surely, and even for much knowledge. If you keep stomping on your designated enemies like Godzilla long enough, you will eradicate them in time. Gee, that hasn’t worked so terrifically well against “The Islamic State,” has it? The crew working the levers inside the machine is an utterly lost cause in terms of enlightenment. Its members are rewarded for only seeing what they are instructed to see. Perpetual war guarantees their ongoing comfortable existence. The machine, the Juggernaut of War, needs to be toppled and smashed to bits. The notion of reform is a bad joke.

    • Hi Greg: the “wisdom” word appears once, in the sentence on General Shoup. I was focusing on the difference between data — raw information or an aggregation of info — with knowledge. True knowledge informs judgment and contributes to right action. And wisdom — the voice of experience — also informs judgment and action. Knowledge of that sort truly is power.

      To me, our various intelligence agencies (I think there are 17, but who knows) substitute raw data collection for true knowledge. They might be good at sweeping up everything, but they can’t tell the wheat from the chaff. Even worse, they call the chaff “wheat” if it serves their purposes to do so. And their tangled lines of responsibility — and their compromised agendas — only serve further to skew the data.

      So — lots of power, lots of data, but not much knowledge. Thus the power is compromised — often misdirected even when the intent is good.

      • Looking at the actions of the US colossus in the world today–indeed, since 1898–from a simple perspective of Human Rights…I can’t find a track record of good intent. Though you express criticism of this or that specific policy or action, Bill Astore, I believe you remain emotionally (yes, I’d have to say that’s the right term) too close on the whole to the subject we’re trying to scrutinize here. I see that as the legacy of your 20 years of faithful service to the US Air Force. No fig leaf of good intent is large enough to cover the crimes of the USA, nay, even a small fraction thereof.

      • No apology sought, Bill! Pardon my bluntness but it’s what I call keeping it real. I think it’s important readers grasp where the editor of this site is coming from. They of course will doubtless form their own opinions.

    • The United States has been the biggest collection of god-bothering self-righteous pesterers of everyone else since the fist cast-outs arrived in Jamestown. The only thing “exceptional” about the United States is the exception stupidity, that has never ever ever ever learned a damn thing from any experience ever.

  3. The points made in this piece, and thank you for the effort, have to be known and fully understood by more than a few presently employed in the various agencies and service branches responsible for “intelligence”, including some who willfully create and direct alternative spin resulting in perhaps incalculable net cost, to human life, rate of progression of planetary civilizational advance, and probably neither last or remotely close to least, the American taxpayer entrusting the best interests of our country to this group and receiving such a terrible return for this trust. Corporations, their investors, and particularly primary stockholders and the minions they appoint as CEO’s & attorneys & other primary sycophants – er, ataff, profit spectacularly, though, do they not? Small wonder whistleblowers are hunted game and media coverage is carefully steered to sell an alternative fiction to that taxpaying public. A public which, as WJA notes, may be so fact deprived and dumbed down that it is already incapable of requiring more from it leadership.

  4. ?? Knowledge is only potential power, unless you have absolute knowledge.

    Short of that, potential or presumed power only counts if it’s accompanied by action, and continuously tuned by immediate feedback (usually about unanticipated inter-dependencies and unexpected consequences).

    And power itself doesn’t always deliver Desired Outcomes, as anyone who’s hammered their thumb should remember. :)

    • ‘… continuously tuned by immediate feedback.’ Elegantly succinct, it’s mine, now, if you don’t mind.
      Not to claim as originally conceived by me, no, but to utilize in aid of refuting both libertarian laissez faire anti-regulatory regime doctrinal puritans and anti-scientific methodology Iron Age-thinking know-nothings. Just to name two types of stifling dogmatic mind sets.

      • Please restate as often as possible, regardless of whom you quote. Lord knows we need our aggregates to get the message, regardless of the sources.

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