Sharif Islam
3 min readJun 2, 2021

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:

Not unlike their modern counterparts in epidemiology and public health, the authors of the most important Ottoman plague treatises were leading scholars striving to combat this existential threat to state and society. They presented plague as a social problem, a disease of the body politic, just as much as an environmental problem.


their manuals were often emphatically magical.

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.

By any premodern definition, then, the placebo effect is simply a form of magic. Which term we use is unimportant for practical purposes: either way, the fact is that mind can affect matter under the right circumstances. The point is to harness these mind-matter interactions to achieve positive health outcomes.

This powerful, magical effect was recognised and routinely utilised — on the authority of Plato himself — by premodern Muslim, Jewish and Christian physicians. Our triumphalist narrative of scientific progress notwithstanding, and the antibiotic revolution aside, in many cases premodern treatments work roughly as well as modern medicine.

His conclusion is something to think about:

In a time of global traumas, it seems only rational to use the power of belief as part of our basic hygiene, too.

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.

Sharif Islam

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