Knowledge and Power

Francis Bacon

A few years ago New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote the essay, “Knowledge Isn’t Power.” This contrasts with the received view that knowledge is power. Here is the opening paragraph of a relevant Wikipedia entry:

The phrase “scientia potentia est” (or “scientia est potentia or also “scientia potestas est”) is a Latin aphorism often claimed to mean organized “knowledge is power.”It is commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, although there is no known occurrence of this precise phrase in Bacon’s English or Latin writings. However, the expression “ipsa scientia potestas est” (‘knowledge itself is power’) occurs in Bacon’s Meditationes Sacrae (1597). The exact phrase “scientia potentia est” was written for the first time in the 1651 work Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, who was secretary to Bacon as a young man.1

For the philosophically uninitiated Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) “was an English philosopher … [and a] philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method ..Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. His works established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method.”2 Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) “was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy. His 1651 book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of most later Western political philosophy.”3

Not surprisingly the idea that knowledge is power originated with that influential thinker who sparked the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon, and one of the most important figures of the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes. Interpretations of the phrase include the idea that knowledge increases one’s ability or potential, or improves one’s influence or reputation. In the prescriptive sense, the idea is that knowledge should be powerful. It should inform and guide our public policies and decisions, and by doing so (scientific) knowledge has power.

Krugman worries that scientific knowledge is losing its power to influence public policy. Instead, we have the appearance of knowledge holding sway. Many are largely influenced by demagogues or the ignorant rather than the educated. For example, there is a virtual consensus on a wide range of issues among leading economists “representing a wide spectrum of schools and political leanings, on questions that range from the economics of college athletes to the effectiveness of trade sanctions [to] whether … the Obama “stimulus” — reduced unemployment … [to] whether the stimulus was worth it …” Nonetheless, policy-makers and the public are often unaware of or ignore expert advice. This is not to say that the professional consensus is always right, but it does raise the question: “Are we as societies even capable of taking good policy advice?”

Reflections – Obviously if the answer is no to the above question, then knowledge has lost much of its power. And it is not only in economics but in biology, climate science, and other disciplines that policymakers ignore scientific consensus. This makes you wonder if our species can avoid disaster. Because ultimately the truth about economics, biology, and climate science trumps ideology–evolution is still true, vaccines still prevent disease, and the climate is still changing. If our decisions are not informed by our knowledge, then they will be informed by our ignorance. We will return to the pre-Enlightenment world ruled by superstition and emotion, rather than reason and evidence. Let us hope that we act in accordance with the latter. After all, our survival depends on it. And if that doesn’t matter nothing else does. 


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7 thoughts on “Knowledge and Power

  1. I think the assertion, knowledge is power, was, almost always more of an assertion connected to economics and/ or capitalism/free enterprise. Connecting it to anything and everything else, without some disclaimer, fails, IMHO. The disclaimer might read something like:…knowledge is a pathway to power, among other things…
    I could say more here, but this is just a comment, not a dissertation.
    That’s my twin pennies worth.

  2. I agree that matters of public policy should be guided by expert views, whether the issue is environmental, economic, or otherwise. However, a real world concern is defining “knowledge“ and “expertise“ too narrowly. Since we’re talking about public policy, the expert view Must be delivered with an eye towards public psychology. At least in a democracy, selling the idea is no less important than the validity of the idea itself.

  3. Got a late response this afternoon from my friend who attended a conference in Pari, Italy. David Chalmers showed up, Christof Koch did not. My friend had a good time and made a new friend or two. All good. As earlier indicated, I will—am—rethinking, reworking my own ideas on consciousness. My track, I think, is OK. I mostly need to make some better distinctions. Still cooking it…

  4. no worries. a lot of ideas are cooking in my head at all times and only a few ever fully make it in print. Glad we’re both thinking. The world needs more good thinking.

  5. Knowledge ‘is’ power, but what is Power? and perhaps more importantly, what is knowledge?, If you were a Roman engineer and you wanted to build an aqua duct having the knowledge to do it would be power!
    Should your expertise be in one of the softer sciences, something that exists solely in the Human mind, like economics, or psychology, or social engineering, perhaps your ‘knowledge’ isn’t as fixed as the physical engineer’s knowledge, but more affected by changing times and the fashions of those times.
    Who decides who the Experts are, we look at the Aqua Duct and we know that the builder is an expert because there it stands and the water is flowing through it.
    Experts in the softer sciences are given their imprimatur by those who trained them, and they represent enough diversity of views that those who hire them can find an ‘Expert’ that espouses the views the employer feels will best suit their goals!
    Will this be best for society as a whole? Perhaps, but only time can tell!
    Humans, generally, need things to believe in, once we believed in Religious Figures who were also human and therefore fallible, to-day we are encouraged to believe in those humans who are presented to us as Experts.

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