Web Exclusive: On the Level

October 20, 2000
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Access to information doesn't necessarily equate to knowledge.



We live in “the information age” thanks to digital technology and several means of instant data transmission. An article in Civilization magazine, a publication of the Library of Congress, got my attention with its title “The Knowledge Age.” A popular truism says that information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. Is it wishful thinking, then, that suggests this age of data collection, manipulation and transmission is becoming an age of knowledge?

Access to information does not assure knowledge for any of us. Knowledge comes from evaluating and prioritizing information, applying what is relevant to a certain issue and discarding the rest. Every high school term paper starts with a visit to the library to search out relevant information on a chosen subject. Information is sorted, ideas and opinions are formed, and findings are presented. If something is learned in the process, knowledge is gained. If the student merely processes information to get a "B," there is no gain of knowledge.

The Civilization article was subtitled “In a Haze of Information, Finding Truth” and implies that truth always proceeds from knowledge, a proposition rejected by fundamentalists of all persuasions. But for the purpose of this discussion, let’s accept the relationship of knowledge to truth. Which brings us to the mat where surveyors wrestle every day. There is perhaps no other occupation in which its practitioners work from raw data to a presentation of (presumed) truth so directly and so constantly.

The geographer deals with factual information as to relative position of people and places. As we have discovered, the geographers’ presentations in map form may influence how people view the world. Map projections that seem to give prominence to certain countries or continents beyond the reality of their size and position is an example of information presentation that influences our perception of truth.

What is the truth about the elevation of a mountain? Depends. Elevation relative to what? Geodesy is finally defining a datum that will standardize our expressions of elevation. Several articles have appeared in recent years in journals and magazines on surveying describing the measurement of mountain tops not compared simply to sea level but to an abstract mathematical model based on the shape of the earth. The truth of elevation depends upon a criteria of our own invention and agreement, whether ellipsoid or geoid.

For the land surveyor, the journey from information to truth is more problematic. A topographic survey presents data about the position of features of a site, but how is that data accepted as truth? Depends. Someone must set a standard of accuracy to be satisfied by the data presentation. A manhole may be located to the nearest foot horizontally while its invert is measured vertically to the nearest one hundredth of a foot. The presentation of this information is accepted as truth but only because the criteria for truth has been established by invention and agreement.

For the cadastral surveyor the criteria for truth is even more elusive and the expression “haze of information” has real meaning. There is the written record to be studied and evidence in the field to be found, measured and evaluated. Precision of measurement must be applied to produce accuracy whose standards have been established and agreed to. Once again, truth is as it is defined by a standard established by invention and agreement—but note that there is relativity in this truth. In fact for the surveyor, all truth is relative, whether relative to an accepted datum or relative to an accepted standard. (For everyone else we leave it to the philosophers and theologians to decide whether there is absolute truth in this life.)

The ultimate step in the cadastral surveyor’s search for truth comes with a judgment of location of title to a particular parcel of land. The surveyor has examined the record, searched for evidence and made exhaustive measurements and may be possessed of full knowledge of the facts relating to the land title. It seems a simple step from there to a discovery of truth, but somewhere between full knowledge and a conclusion, there must be an application of wisdom and discernment. It is this step that distinguishes the professional surveyor from the technician. Knowledge of facts is necessary to finding truth, but the facts can lead different people, equipped with differing levels of wisdom, to reach different conclusions.

The final step to adjudicated “truth” is further complicated by the advocacy role of attorneys arguing on behalf of their respective clients. For the truly professional surveyor, truth is objective. For the advocate, truth is subjectively arrived at in favor of the attorney’s client and the client’s claim.

The surveyor’s presentation of his or her conclusion, whether in the form of a map or pins in the ground, is truth as the surveyor sees it. From everyone else’s point of view, it is merely the surveyor’s opinion; a court may find a different definition of “truth.” We are challenged by the purveyors of subjective truth or, to apply the more modern terminology, virtual truth. What is important for the surveyor is to distinguish between mere facts and knowledge, and between knowledge and objective truth.

When seeking truth it is well to remember that there is objective truth and subjective truth, and that in the realm of law as it relates to land title, conclusive truth is to be defined elsewhere. The Civilization article might better have been titled “A Search for Knowledge and Truth in the Information Age.”

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