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Are we mixing up magic and science (again)?

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It’s always been true that people can manipulate data to fool others. (An index chart with a scale that starts at 50 not zero, for instance, is a classic and somewhat disappointing feature of some awards entries to exaggerate impact.)

Now data may be manipulating us as AI takes control.

The consequences of this are far reaching and profoundly dark. We should not believe in what we see without interrogation. For some, this has echoes of the pre-enlightenment mass belief in magic.

Until the late 17th century, in the West, magic and science were pretty much the same thing. Sir Isaac Newton “discovered” gravity but he also worked hard to turn metal into gold with alchemy. Queen Elizabeth I sponsored the magician/mathematician Dr Dee who cast spells and taught Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh how to navigate the globe. Dee conversed with angels, and wrote algorithms (they aren’t anything new) to explain the solar system.

Magic fell from grace, as an endeavour for scholars and scientists in the enlightenment, replaced by cold, hard data. Today, one leading commentator on data science believes that we are in danger of thinking about it in terms that are magical.

R David Edelman is director at the Massachusetts Institute of........

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