In magic (data) we trust?

A short comment on an article published by Professor Matt Melvin-Koushki. In Magic helped us in pandemics before, and it can again he argues that resorting to magic or spirituality is not that irrational specially in times of crisis.

He draws on historical sources such as Ottoman plague treatises to show:


These magical elements include prayers and invocations of divine names through mathematical talismans. Simultaneously, the authors emphasise that one should not solely rely on divine spirits — one should be rational and avoid plague-stricken areas if possible. This entanglement of “rational” vs “irrational” was common not just in the Ottoman Empire but as Melvin-Koushki shows medicine often practiced as an occult science among premodern Muslim, Jewish and Christian physicians. The other fascinating insight from this article is that these practitioners of “magic” did not see these activities as magical or irrational. The premodern physicians report experimental success of these magical activities. He makes a connection to the placebo effect.

His conclusion is something to think about:

I connect this article to our pre-occupations with data and AI. Are data and AI our modern mathematical talismans? Endlessly looking at charts and spreadsheets during times of crisis provides us with the same repose that the incantations provided? Or is it also has a placebo effect. Under conditions of mass trauma, looking at data visualisations combined with sincere belief and mental focus can help us overcome fatalistic tendencies? Even though countless researcher over the years showed that data are not magic and plenty of recent examples where data and AI failed us and caused more problems — we still trust in data to heal us. I end the pose with the following spurious correlation. May the following provide some solace in these dark times.




Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Sharif Islam

Sharif Islam

Data Architect@Distributed System of Scientific Collections ( PhD in Sociology. Bachelor's in Math and CS from the University of Illinois.