Information vs. understanding: Wikileakising the news

So I fire up the computer again after my statutory two weeks, only to catch the tail end of a diplomatic crisis. Apparently Wikileaks have released a load of stolen cables too, and it’s this latter (clearly less significant) scandal that I’d like to comment on. I know it may border on heresy to express this opinion online, but personally I am deeply concerned about the wikileakisation of the news (to coin an appropriately ugly term). It’s been going on a lot recently, and the fact that the latest leak happens to embarrass people whom I rather dislike= should not disguise the similarities with so-called climategate last year. I wrote then about the right of scientists to be indiscreet in their private communications, which in fact boils down to the simpler statement that I believe that lines of private, written communications should exist. Diplomats perhaps shouldn’t have the same license for indiscretion (the clue’s in the name), but quoting selected morsels of communications which are removed from all context is no way to understand the world.

Let me expand. I rely for my research on data collected by other people – often very large cooperatives of other scientists. And the first tenet of data-driven science is that data without metadata is useless. ‘Metadata’ is simply data about data: so for instance, it might be a document describing the column headings in a spreadsheet, or the field protocols used to collect the data (with information on known biases and so on). Presented only with the raw data, I can run fancy statistical models to my heart’s content, but the results will be completely devoid of meaning. I would never get such analyses published unless I could demonstrate a clear understanding of the scope and limitations of the data. To the extent that I could ever be considered an ‘expert’, this is my job: not simply to provide titbits (or even torrents) of information out of context, but to perform sensible analyses on the data and to interpret these in the context of what is known about the system. Of course, I am in favour of supporting any conclusion I might make with full access to the data and methods I used to arrive there, but that is somewhat different. Wikileakisation places the cart of data in front of the horses of professionsal competence. Were I a political journalist I would be ashamed of having my expertise undermined, but most seem content to report gossip as fact or insight.

As far as the clamour for complete disclosure, for absolute freedom of information goes, I would argue that simply spewing out data in an uncontrolled torrent is not complete disclosure. Quoting what diplomat x said about minor royal y to ambassador z does not fully inform us about the reality of the situation, not unless we understand the personal relationships involved, and the political context behind the communication.

In much the same way, in order to interpret a (hypothetical) email I sent along the lines of ‘this work is awful, we should try to make sure it is never published’ it would be essential to know whether I was addressing a good friend – and so to take it as a throwaway comment – or a senior academic editor with whom I had never shared a pint, wherein the implications would be somewhat different.

I think we could all agree that actively concealing information is rarely defensible (although more often so in diplomatic than in scientific circles). But at the same time, information is not understanding, and we should not confuse the two.

And I say this as a parent, so it must be true ;-)