Data, information, knowledge, insight, wisdom, and Conspiracy Theory

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The relationships among these different types of knowing has always been something that intrigued me.  Now it's all spelled out diagrammatically:

In trying to find out where this cartoon originated, I quickly learned that it is everywhere, and that it has become a veritable meme, with countless modifications.

The only apparent claim of ownership that I can find is here.  However, the claimant ("The Channel Surfer") doesn't explain whether "designed by" means that he/she designed the image or merely 'designed' the poster by pasting the image onto it.

Based on a reverse image search, the earliest version appears to be this Imgur post from Aug. 15, 2020. That in turn was inspired by this image from Gaping Void.

This tweet shows how the meme evolved.

Here are a bunch of additional examples:

The bottom right variant of the penultimate panel (the same one with gradations of color that occurs in Gaping Void), even gets into the realm of colormaps and painbows, which we have recently been discussing on Language Log.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf and Ben Zimmer]


  1. Bloix said,

    November 13, 2021 @ 7:07 pm

    What I find interesting about this is that all the examples omit what are for most people the two most commonly used and compelling sources of knowledge:
    1) Sensory perception
    2) Authority

  2. Jerry Packard said,

    November 13, 2021 @ 7:52 pm

    Sorry, but I do not at all like the non-unicorn 'conspiracy theory'.

  3. C Baker said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 12:42 am

    IDK, Jerry, it does seem that "THE JEWS DID IT" is the linchpin of most conspiracy theories, even the ones about aliens and lizardfolk.

  4. bks said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 9:40 am

    I always get stuck at "Information". I've been trying to figure it out for over 50 years now. Shannon is of little help, as he forces the outside observer to impose meaning/semantics on a probabilistic communication channel. Gregory Bateson called it "a difference that makes a difference." According to physicists, it cannot be destroyed. But what is it?

  5. Rodger C said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 10:13 am

    "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"–T. S. Eliot, I think.

  6. Allan from Iowa said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 10:27 am

    The folk tradition on Tumblr says that the star-of-David version is the original and that the designer of the unicorn version is denying the existence of antisemitism.

  7. Dick Enzyan said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 11:20 am

    The final panel (Conspiracy Theory) of the cartoon needs:
    – Some of the original dots to be deleted
    – Some dots, not in the original layout, to be introduced
    – Some wavy lines, unrelated to any dot-joining, to be drawn in
    This would then reflect the concealments, falsehoods and unjustified reasoning which are features of most conspiracy theories.
    Just a suggestion.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 1:23 pm

    "Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” – widely attributed to Albert Einstein

    Did he really say this?

  9. AntC said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 4:32 pm

    "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." [Karl Marx]

  10. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 6:02 pm

    @Victor Mair:
    You won't find it in "Subtle is the Lord", hence
    1. I doubt it (but if in doubt, you can always attribute anything to Einstein, Russell, Mark Twain, whomever)
    2. My father (*1893) used to say "Jeder Trottel weiss alles, aber verstehen will er nix" (I suspect that was a common saying in those pre-WWI days, like, for instance "Vox populi, vox Rindvieh"

  11. Jerry Packard said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 7:23 pm

    @C Baker

    I see.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    November 15, 2021 @ 8:45 am

    Clearly there is a gap in my general knowledge, but what did you (Jerry) mean by "the non-unicorn 'conspiracy theory'" (since the cartoonish 'unicorn' appears to be the only mention of a conspiracy theory), what is the basis of Mr Baker's suggestion that « "THE JEWS DID IT" is the linchpin of most conspiracy theories», and where does Judaism come into things at all ?

  13. Doug said,

    November 15, 2021 @ 10:25 am

    Philip Taylor:

    If you look through the "additional examples" in the post, you'll see the Star of David (non-Unicorn) version of conspiracy theory.

  14. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 15, 2021 @ 4:11 pm

    @Victor Mair: I checked in with Garson O'Toole, who runs the Quote Investigator site, about the history of the "Any fool can know" quote. According to his preliminary research, the quote was "probably spoken by a fictional version of Albert Einstein during an NBC television program broadcast on May 20, 1973" ("Dr. Einstein Before Lunch," with a script by Ernest Kinoy).

  15. Bloix said,

    November 15, 2021 @ 6:23 pm

    It doesn't sound like Einstein. It's braggadocio (I understand and you don't), which was not like him.

    But the QI site does think that the following is from a reliable source. The incident described took place in 1921. Einstein was in the US and was answering questions from the press through a translator:

    "Told of Edison’s view that a knowledge of facts was vitally important, Einstein disagreed: “A person doesn’t need to go to college to learn facts. He can get them from books. The value of a liberal arts college education is that it trains the mind to think. And that’s something you can’t learn from textbooks. If a person had ability, a college education helps develop it.”

    That's the sort of thing a screenwriter might have condensed into the 'any fool' aphorism.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    November 15, 2021 @ 6:26 pm

    OK, thank you Doug. I searched for "conspiracy theory" but of course it could not search the graphical content. And had it not been for your glossing of it, I would never have recognised the six-pointed star as a Star of David.

  17. Laser Ray said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 4:50 am

    the problem with this cartoon/meme is that it goes from 'data' to 'wisdom' as if that's a given — as if that's a prescribed, authoritatively imposed version of how to light up and connect the dots in yellow. there's where the 'wisdom' fails (and becomes conspiracy in and of itself?). BA-DUM.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 6:08 am

    "the problem with this cartoon/meme is that it goes from 'data' to 'wisdom' as if that's a given — as if that's a prescribed, authoritatively imposed version of how to light up and connect the dots".

    This does make me wonder whether it is possible to have wisdom in the absence of data. "Look, I've already told you what the plan is, don't start trying to confuse me with the facts" is a well-known joke theme, but I do wonder whether wisdom in the absence of data is a genuine possibility. Clearly one can have wisdom in the abstract, but for any given case does one not also require the relevant data ?

  19. Dick Enzyan said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 12:22 pm

    @ Laser Ray, @ Philip Taylor
    Certainly, “lighting up and connecting the dots" cannot be imposed, or be the result of an authoritative process. However, it can be well or badly done, using the skill of reasoning. We apply the reasoning to the data/information. A high degree of such skill, with an awareness of purpose and values, may be what was traditionally referred to as wisdom. Imho, we need more of it.

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