Wisdom in the Storm

By Alan W. Dowd, 3.8.19

We’ve all heard the wry, old adage that the Ark was built by amateurs, while the Titanic was built by credentialed professionals. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, to be sure, but it serves as a reminder that intelligence and knowledge don’t always get the job done. Indeed, all of the information, data and knowledge in the world is worthless—or downright dangerous—if we don’t have the wisdom to make proper use of it. That’s our challenge in this age of endless data and information overload.

“We are awash in data,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats observes. “We have to understand how our adversaries use that data against our interests, and how we can prevent that from happening, as well as use it for our own purposes.” He adds that “It’s a constant struggle to process data, analyze it, and convert it into knowledge and understanding for our customers [Congress and the president]. It’s one of our greatest challenges.” 

Similarly, AEI’s Jonah Goldberg laments how “We drown in information, but we starve for knowledge.”

What both Coats and Goldberg are saying is that information and data do not equal knowledge. Knowledge is the process of organizing data and information into something useable and then applying it to a problem: growing crops, inventing the printing press, creating constitutional government, building the internal combustion engine, developing a vaccine, discovering the atom and then unlocking its power, exploring the lunar surface, writing computer code.

The summit of knowledge is science. The word “science” literally means “the state of knowing…knowledge as distinguished from ignorance…systematized knowledge.”

Yet science isn’t the summit of human understanding. Just as we have access to far more information and data than earlier generations, we also have access to more knowledge and indeed more science than earlier generations.

Before the 20th century, human knowledge doubled every hundred years. By the middle of the 20th century, it was every 25 years. At the dawn of the 21st century, human knowledge was doubling every 12 months. Today, this exponential growth of knowledge is accelerating, which explains the growing number of sciences—many of them spawned by new technologies capable of harvesting and manipulating information.

What we lack amidst all this information and knowledge is wisdom. “While science has increased man’s power in ways that former men never dreamt of,” political philosopher Leo Strauss observed in the midst of the terrifying new age of nuclear weapons, “it is absolutely incapable of telling men how to use that power.”

That’s where wisdom comes into play; indeed, that’s where wisdom is essential. To paraphrase Goldberg, todays’ world starves for wisdom.

Knowledge may be understood as a stairstep to wisdom. But knowledge alone does not make us wise.

To illustrate this point, let’s conduct a quick thought experiment: Take a moment and think about the smartest person you know—the person who was top in your graduating class, the person who has all the answers at work, the person who has all those degrees on his wall or all those letters next to her name testifying to all of his or her knowledge. Now, think about the wisest person you know—the person you seek out for counsel and advice when you have an important decision to make, when you’re faced with a no-win dilemma.

The odds are high that you’re thinking of two different people, that the smartest person you know is not the wisest person you know.

The point of this exercise is that wisdom is more than intelligence and intellect, more than turning data and information into knowledge. Wisdom is the art, the craft, the gift of sifting through knowledge, mixing it with judgment and experience, and then applying it to life.

That’s an imprecise definition because wisdom, unlike knowledge, is an imprecise quality. Wisdom cannot be honed into a science. Wisdom cannot be defined by a formula. Wisdom cannot be obtained by a course of study.

Yet we know it when we see it or hear it. As the Book of Daniel puts it, “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens.” In other words, wise people tend to stand out.

The collection of timeless wisdom known as the Bible offers helpful clues as to where to find such people and where to find wisdom.

The psalmist tells us that wisdom is found when we learn to value the preciousness and briefness of life, that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Put another way, the ability—and the humility—to recognize that there is something beyond us, something bigger than us, something that calls us, something we must one day answer to, is the primary ingredient of wisdom.

Proverbs explains that wise people “bring calm” and “healing.” They also bring joy to their families and “turn away anger,” according to Proverbs. “The one who is wise,” Proverbs explains, “saves lives.” In fact, wisdom, like the dutiful soldier, protects us and watches over us.

Interestingly, Proverbs says that wise people are not know-it-alls. Instead, they are open to learning; they “store up knowledge,” welcome instruction and “listen to advice.” And according to Proverbs, if we follow their example, if we spend time “walking with the wise,” if we “listen to advice and accept discipline,” we can become wise—or at least wiser.

Many of these attributes of wisdom come with living life and growing up, which is why we generally identify wisdom with gray hair and wrinkled skin. But all of us know young people who are wise and old people who are foolish. Indeed, in Job, we learn that the gift of wisdom is not reserved for the old. As Job’s wise, young friend Elihu explained, “It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right…It is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding.” Elihu’s observation further underscores that wisdom, on some level, is a gift.

Ecclesiastes bluntly concludes that wisdom equals power and “is better than weapons of war.” This makes sense, for at its best wisdom can help nations avoid war. But even when war proves unavoidable, wisdom ensures that a nation or an army or an individual is prepared for the chaos and calamity of war.

That brings us back, in a roundabout way, to what worries Director Coats: Are industry and the intelligence community turning all that information and data they possess into useable knowledge for policymakers? More important yet, do policymakers in Congress and the White House have the wisdom to make proper use of all that information and knowledge?

These questions call to mind two ancient parables.

The first asks, “What king would go to war against another king without first sitting down to consider whether his 10,000 soldiers could go up against the 20,000 coming against him?  And if he didn’t think he could win, he would send a representative to discuss terms of peace while his enemy was still a long way off.” 

The given of this parable is that threats and conflicts are going arise in this broken world—and that wise leaders find a way to deal with those threats. In this parable, both kings are wise—one because he recognizes that he’s outnumbered; the other because he makes sure that he’s not.

In a similar way, the parable of the two builders reminds us of the importance of preparedness and planning. The wise builder built his house on the solid foundation of rock. The foolish builder didn’t take the time or spend the money or devote the resources to digging down to bedrock. Instead, he took the easy way and built his house on sand. When the storms came, only the house built on rock survived.

The given of this parable is that disaster tends to affect all of us in this broken world—and that only those who are wise enough to prepare and plan ahead will survive the storms.

Wise people—the wise leader, the wise advisor, the wise general, the wise farmer, the wise builder, the wise shopkeeper, the wise homemaker, the wise parent—apply their knowledge about the past, their understanding of human nature, and their experience in the world to prepare and plan for what lies ahead. They don’t know all the answers, but they know how to work through the process of finding answers. As a result, they “bring calm” and “save lives.”

These are the kinds of people we need in government today.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.