Professor Aaron Hanlon delivered a talk on the introduction of the word “Data” into the English language in the 17th century. From here, he explored the ways in which this was used and how that has shaped the use of the word today. What began as meaning literally, “the word of God” data has now become a ubiquitous term in everyday language. Professor Hanlon showed the google n-gram viewer for the usage of words data, fact and truth. A trend can be noted that the usage of “fact” and “truth” diverged near 1850, “fact” increasing and “truth” decreasing. “Data” also began to increase rapidly in usage from throughout the 20th century and the usage of “truth” plateaued, falling well below the usage of “data” and “fact” by 2000. What can these trends say about the meanings of these words have changed.
The general trend would tell an observer that the transition has been from a word more related to belief to more neutral and scientific words. The word “truth” implies intimacy, a type of interaction with the information where it is the truth, but it is also taken as the truth. It means the same as fact but facts imply a separation from the interpreter. Facts are simply what is presented. Data is what builds these facts and truths. The analysis of data can lead to conclusions. Today, data has instead become synonymous with evidence. Not support, but more related to facts and truths. This is problematic because data is nothing without proper context. Data can be framed and manipulated to be evidence for anything.
I’m not sure how revolutionary this idea is, but it is alarming that we are moving towards a reality where data functions alone. Instead of relying on the context, people simply look at the raw data and set aside why or how it was collected in the first place. Data should not reveal anything without some context. This is not a framing of the information, but rather an actual description. In a time with excessive information, it is important to remember this. All of this random information must be supported. And even then, the supported information relies on how and why it was collected and analyzed. This may shape the interpretation and may also lead to faults in the method of collection. There is a lot more to data than simply interpreting the magnitude of numbers compared to one another. Data is extremely important, but it must be appreciated for what it is.
What Professor Hanlon was getting at is that data has always been visual but in current times, it is becoming evidence for people’s claims. What is surrounding the specific data has been losing importance over the years. The interpretation of data cannot be generalized. Depending on a critical lens, not only can data have varying importance, but it can lead to completely different conclusions. When a person looks at data, they need to take context into account and also look at the reason for this data in the first place. Evidence, facts and truths can come from data, but it is wrong to assume that this is always true.