In a recent conversation discussing some of the limitations of wellbeing data, a trusted colleague mentioned to me that he views empirical data as a form of art. It might feel odd to think of scientific data as art but it is also a beautiful concept.
The Collins Dictionary defines ‘art’ as consisting of “paintings, sculpture, and other pictures or objects which are created for people to look at and admire or think deeply about.” Data, particularly from the human sciences, is absolutely intended to create a ‘picture’ for us to think deeply about. Like art, data is not an actual snapshot of reality but rather a creative representation of reality. In fact, often the most effective data – data that moves us and affects us, is data that is represented graphically, typically crafted with much thought given to the colour, contrast, form, and dimension.
This is not true of all data. Some data is highly objective and clean – we could call this realism. Some data is quite crude and bold – impressionist. Other data attempts to quantify the inherently subjective human experience – expressionist. And, of course, like Rothko’s painting, some data is distinctively abstract.
All data, however, share the same purpose – to tell a story. These stories help put language to experience, to challenge our view of the world, to help create a sense of coherence and meaning.
When we view data from the human sciences as art, we are able to see it for what it really is; not fact or truth, but a way of harnessing human creativity and ingenuity to transcend our own small, individual lives. Like art, data allows us to view the world differently, with greater integrity. It has the power to open our eyes and capture our hearts.
This is why data matters.