The title of this post borrows from ideas presented by Sha Hwang at the Visualized conference in New York City several weeks ago: He kicked off the data-visualization event with a talk that—in effect—challenged the audience to take a step back. Way back. And then to look again, with fresh unblinking eyes. What does a long take of the data look like? And what is the view from afar? Citing Frank White’s book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, in which astronauts refer to a profound shift in their perception of self and our world on viewing Earth from space, Hwang got me thinking. Can you really make the shift from visible to visceral in a data visualization simply by changing the readers’ point of view, or including a broader context for the data set?
Several speakers over the next few days made the case that you could. If—as Hwang suggested—you also remembered to come back down to earth. Kim Rees (Periscopic) and Wes Grubbs (Pitch Interactive) argued that an individual anecdote may tug at the heartstrings, but can be excused away as an anomaly. Visualizing the broader framework—an unblinking and distant look at the full data set—can establish the full, undeniable context. They put that approach to good use in their projects on gun deaths and drone strikes, respectively. Each individual story is honored and represented as a discrete point or trajectory. But there is power in showing how those individuals fit into the bigger picture. And graphics are a powerful tool in portraying complex and large pictures.
Neil Halloran debuted an animated graphic entitled “The Fallen of World War II,” in which casualty data points on a timeline (the overview) are punctuated with jarring photographs of individuals and events—moments that slam the viewer back down to earth. Similarly, Audrée Lapierre and Sébastien Pierre (FFunction) make use of photographs in their data-based interactive “Earth Insights,” literally providing the faces behind the data points in a project on biodiversity, making the abstract relatable.
But how does that all work when it comes to visualizing scientific results? Is it even ethical to aim for the gut or appeal to the heart? Shouldn’t graphics that purport to communicate scientific concepts remain cerebral? Let the facts speak for themselves and avoid appealing to emotions? I embrace the idea of using artistic license in illustrating counterintuitive scientific concepts. Superfluous texture, detail and color can engage and hold on to a reader new to the topic. But somehow data visualizations seemed purer to me. Facts. Numbers presented clearly. Not to be “visceralized.”
Then Hawkeye Pierce provided a moment of clarity.
OK, so it was really Alan Alda (actor, director, writer and science communication enthusiast), not his character from the TV show M*A*S*H. And he didn’t exactly deliver an answer directly to me. It was more like a perfectly timed nugget via Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina, tweeting from his plenary lecture at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting in Chicago.
In a summary of the full talk on the AAAS Web site, Becky Ham wrote, “Alda urged scientists to look for ways to bring emotion into their communication, citing research that indicates strong feelings can help create lasting memories.”
Right. I’m not conducting scientific research. I’m communicating it. And engaging audiences and connecting with people is an emotional act. The data should be pure. But that doesn’t mean that the graphic needs to be neutral.
Perhaps, in an effort to get people to care about the data behind the graphic, it’s perfectly okay—using the language of design—to raise your voice. Or let it crack. Or provide a long pause for a moment of reflection. As long as the integrity of the data remains intact, why not take a lesson or two from Al Gore on his scissor lift in front of a rising temperature graph in the film An Inconvenient Truth? Draw attention to the extreme with a bit of visual drama. Underline the absurd. Animate the change. Inject some energy. Quiet the noise. Or employ a full stop.
Click here for a Storify collection of my tweets from the event.