Note #17. Information is not Knowledge; we need Intelligence

  • TD
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Minds marinated in social media become unarmed targets of weaponized information, hate, and deception. On this 19th commemoration of our 9/11 heroes, it’s critically appropriate to emphasize the need for apolitical intelligence.

There is a crucial difference between information and knowledge. Understanding the gap can help prevent being duped by media marinades left and right, foreign and domestic.

When information is uncertain, two things happen: (a) we don’t “know” enough to infer conclusions; and (b) we don’t “know” if principles apply to deduce conclusions. This dilemma was particularly acute early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, as we shall see from contending statements. 

What can we do when we don’t know the facts or the context? Aside from having the sense or humility to recognize that, we can begin by thinking critically about information rather than accepting information as knowledge.


A shorthand definition for information is, data-in-context. Here is a deeper definition that specifies what data is and what context is, in a way that we can assess meaning:

     Information — the values of characteristics in the output of processes

By defining information in terms of characteristic outputs of processes, we can assess potential cause and effect relationships. Those dynamics are inherently uncertain too, so we strive to improve measures of performance and effectiveness, assign probabilities, and evaluate risks. All of that should challenge what we think we know, rather than confirm our pre-existing beliefs.


Knowledge tends to be associated with facts, truths or principles, all of which are debated and uncertain. Getting agreement on any of these is problematic in a politicized environment. Take a recent example.

To report that President Trump “knew” in February of this year that the CoV-2 virus was deadlier than the common flu and highly transmissible is misleading because of the uncertainty of information at that time. 

The evidence for this is, ambivalent statements.

At times, both President Trump and former Vice President Biden played down the urgency of COVID-19.  

At times, both candidates issued warnings and/or took action. These statements are still being subjected to explanatory models and political interpretations about their effects. 

To understand when information is misrepresented as knowledge, intelligence education is critical. 


Intelligence is both a tradecraft of collecting and processing information, and an open-ended inquiry into complex problems. In this dual sense, intelligence is process and product of putting information into meaningful contexts. For intelligence professionals, providing such apolitical analysis does not mean ignoring politics—that is, being non-political. Political considerations are a necessary part of making sense of the multi-dimensional information environment.

Bottom line: to recognize and defeat disinformation, arm the mind with the critical thinking of intelligence analysis.

Author: TD
Tom Drohan is Director of the Center for International Security and Leadership at JMark Services, Inc. and a retired US Air Force brigadier general and professor emeritus of military and strategic studies, USAF Academy. His 38-year military career included duties as a pilot, commander, division chief, permanent professor, academic department head, and vice commandant of cadets. His education includes a B.S. in International Affairs from the USAF Academy, an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Hawaii, and a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University. He has served as Council on Foreign Relations Fellow in Japan, Curriculum Advisor at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, Visiting Scholar at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies (Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), and Dean of the National Defense College in the United Arab Emirates. His publications include two books - A New Strategy for Complex Warfare, and American-Japanese Security Agreements - and articles on defense strategy, Asian security, and military education.

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