“Data before the Fact” – selected citations from Daniel Rosenberg

2017-01-11 - Culture & Society / Definitions / Literature / Sources

Daniel Rosenberg is professor of history at Clark Honors College, University of Oregon. He writes on a wide range of topics related to history, epistemology, language and visual culture, among them the history of data . In 2013 he published an insightful article on the etymological origins of the term data in Lisa Gitelman‘s volume “Raw Data is an Oxymoron” (ISBN: 9780262518284). Here are some selected passages from Rosenberg’s contribution “Data before the Fact”:

So, what was data prior to the twentieth century? And how did it acquire its pre-analytical, pre-factual status? In this, etymology is a good starting point. The word “data” comes to English from Latin. It is the plural of the Latin word datum, which itsself is the neuter past participle of the verb dare, to give. A “datum” in English, then, is something given in an argument, something taken for granted. This is in contrast to “fact”, which derives from the neuter past participle of the Latin verb facere, to do, whence we have the English word “fact”, for that which is done, occurred, or exists. The etymology of “data” also contrasts with that of “evidence”, from the Latin verb videre, to see. There are important distinctions here: facts are ontological, evidence is epistemological, data is rhetorical. A datum may also be a fact, just as a fact may be evidence, But, from its first vernacular formulation, the existence of the datum has been independent of any consideration of corresponding ontological truth. When a fact is proven false, it ceases to be a fact. False data is data nonetheless. (p. 18)

In seventeenth-century philosophy and natural philosophy, just as in mathematics and philosophy, the term “data” functioned to identify that category of facts and principles that wre, by agreement, beyond argument. In different contexts, such agreement might be based on a concept of self-evident truth, as in the case of biblical data, or on simple argumentative convenience as in the case of algebra, given X = 3, and so forth. The term “data” itself implied no ontological claim. In methematics, theology, and any other realm in which the term was used, “data” was something given by the conventions of argument. Whether these conventions were factual, counter-factual, or arbitrary had no bearing on the status of givens as data. (p. 20)

[F]rom the beginning, data was a rhetorical concept. Data means – and has meant for a very long time – that which is given prior to argument. (p. 36)

It is tempting to want to give data an essence, to define what exact kind of fact data is. But this misses the most important aspect of the term, and it obscures why the term became so useful in the mid-twentieth century. Data has no truth. Even today, when we speak of data, we make no assumptions at all about veracity. Electronic data, like the data of the ealy modern period, is given. It may be that the data we collect and transmit has no relation to truth whatsoever beyond the reality that fata helps us to construct. This fact is essential to our current usage. It was no less so in the early modern period; but in our age of communication, it is this rhetorical aspect of the term “data” that has made it indispensable. (p. 37)

Source: Rosenberg, Daniel (2013). Data before the Fact. In: Gitelman, Lisa (Ed.). Raw Data is an Oxymoron. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 15-40. See also: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/raw-data-oxymoron

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