Understanding today’s world requires understanding the concept of data, especially at this critical point – days away from the 2016 presidential election. These days we have seen too much “data” and “polls” and “facts” and “statistics” thrown in newspaper and online. These commonly used words are usually associated with, in writers’ minds as well as readers’, a less used word: truth. However, what does truth mean and does absolute truth exist in today’s world? In my opinion, there is a paradox around this question.

Contrary to popular belief, data has a long history in the Anglo-American tradition. The usage of the word can trace back to the 17th century. Through the Enlightenment, data started to be used in science as well as religion, when it was used in its original meaning: that which is given. Gradually, data gained more popularity as a synonym of evidence, as evidenced by the reception of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. This book of illustrations of organisms under microscope was considered truth by the public. An interesting note here is that even though data had got a wider definition, at this point it was still visual and still required context. Also, truth in this sense of data does not meet our modern understanding of truth or fact.

Data later gained its modern definition, which implies huge tables of numbers and complex statistics. This development spawned a lot of modern science that plays a great role in modern society, such as economics. More importantly, it gave rise of the concept of information. The change from concrete visual data to the abstract information was truly revolutionary. It, in a way, defined the modern world. From baseball to election, from global climate change to cutting-edge experiments in labs, from financial markets to software development – none of these is able to exist without data.

As these “decontextualized” data are made more visually impressive, it speaks much louder than words ever did. Granted, the “cold” numbers do sound more convincing than the “hot” rhetoric that we have seen way too much these days. However, isn’t data also rhetorical and theory-laden? Can data really be decontextualized? Probably no. Then data is not independent, so it cannot be absolute truth. Here comes the paradox: throughout the history since the Enlightenment, which has been a scientific era, the truth perceived by the public has never been the truth.

How should we make of this? The existence of absolute truth is an underlying assumption in the modern society. What we can do is to always look at “data” critically and recognize its dependence on contexts.