A curious fact about our data-obsessed era is that we’re often not entirely sure what we even mean by “data”: Elementary particles of knowledge? Digital records? Pure information? Sometimes when we refer to “the data,” we mean the results of an analysis or the evidence concerning a certain question. On other occasions we intend “data” to signify something like “reliable evidence,” as in the saying “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

In everyday usage, the term “data” is associated with a jumble of notions about information, science, and knowledge. Countless reports marvel at the astonishing volumes of data being produced and manipulated, the efficiencies and new opportunities this has made possible, and the myriad ways in which society is changing as a result. We speak of “raw” data and laud it for its independence from human judgment. On this basis, “data-driven” (or “evidence-based”) decision-making is widely endorsed. Yet data’s purported freedom from human subjectivity also seems to allow us to invest it with agency: “Let the data speak for itself,” for “The data doesn’t lie.”

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