Information, data, and inferences in 19th century chemistry

Franklin Jacoby

The objectives of this project are to understand (1) the relationship between data and information and (2) how data are used in data-to-phenomena inferences, especially in historical contexts.

Since Bogen and Woodward’s seminal paper on data and phenomena (1988), philosophers have increasingly recognized the importance of clarifying what data are and what they tell us about the empirical character of scientific knowledge. It is the hypothesis of this project that an examination of what data are and how they are used supports neither strong forms of empiricism nor forms of idealism. We will instead explore the possibility that the use of data presupposes both empirical and conceptual elements.

Part 1: Data and Information
This project takes the approach that data is a type of record, typically of an observation (Jacoby, 2020). As such, data are representational and they represent events, objects, or anything that can be observed. Some authors have, given this representational feature of data, associated data with information (Woodward, 2010), but such treatment has not taken into account the dependence of data upon context. Accounts that do address this contextual dependence of data (e.g. Jacoby, 2020; Leonelli, 2016; McAllister, 2010, 2011) have not addressed the relationship between data and information. Since information is often assumed to be organized and systematized data there obviously is a close connection between the two. This part of the project will clarify how data are both contextually dependent and related to information, thereby synthesizing two separate features of data that different accounts in the literature have emphasized, though have thus far never fully connected.

Part 2: Data in 19th Century Chemistry
Using the results of part 1, part 2 will address a simple case of this connection, namely how data in 19th century chemistry reveals the jointly empirical and conceptually situated character of experimental science during this period. Particularly important is the modification and adoption of atomic theory, a development in the history of chemistry that was fraught, slow to develop, and also not clearly resolved through experimental data. This case shows the complexity and situated character of using data to make inferences about phenomena, a form of reasoning that, if taken out of context, seems deceptively simple. The results of this study may be generalized to more complex cases of the use of data in information and inferences to phenomena such as in social or political contexts.

Literature Cited
Bogen, J., & Woodward, J. (1988). Saving the phenomena. The Philosophical Review, 97(3), 303–352.
Jacoby, F. (2020). Data identity and perspectivism. Synthese, 1–17.
Leonelli, S. (2016). Data-centric biology: a philosophical study. University of Chicago Press.
McAllister, J. W. (1997). Phenomena and patterns in data sets. Erkenntnis, 47(2), 217–228.
McAllister, J. W. (2011). What do patterns in empirical data tell us about the structure of the world? Synthese, 182(1), 73–87.
Woodward, J. (2010). Data, Phenomena, Signal, and Noise. Philosophy of Science, 77, 792–803.