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OptionExplicitVBA

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Reply with quote  #1 
Here is is the The Economists' review of three recently published books on the subject of data visualization. 

http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21580446-revolution-taking-place-how-visualise-information-winds-change?fsrc=scn/tw_ec/winds_of_change

Most of the review seems to promote stuff which Stephen has critiqued extensively before. So I'm not really posting to rehash those discussions. What I'm really interested in is this quote:


Quote:
Neurologically, humans use a different part of the brain when information is presented visually rather than through numbers. The right hemisphere handles imagery; the left is more analytical. Seeing data pictorially makes good use of both sides of the brain and lets one grasp meaning more quickly.


I'm not by any means in expert on the functional pathways of the brain, but I'm not sure if what's being said above is correct. I could be wrong, however, which is why I'm posing this to you, the community, who may know more about this than me. I thought what allows people to grasp meaning from data more quickly is putting more emphasis on preattentive attributes processed in the visual cortex. In other words, I thought the dichotomy was more of a back vs. front brain arrangement. We should attempt to take advantage of visual processing in the visual cortex so the frontal lobe isn't overwhelmed, which I suppose could be described as "balanced" approach, although I don't think that's what the authors meant.

My experience is that right-vs-left brain descriptions are often hyped beyond their scientific designations and regularly travel into the realm of pseudoscience. Is that what The Economist is doing here? What do you think? 

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Jordan Goldmeier
sfew

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Reply with quote  #2 
In reading this article in the Economist, I couldn't find an attribution to its author. I've posted a comment in response to the article asking that the author identify himself (or herself). Regardless of who wrote this, the author is suggesting an advantage of bi-hemispheric visual processing that isn't accurate. Visual perception occurs in both hemispheres of the brain in that the visual cortex is divided into two parts: one in the left hemisphere that processes information from the right eye and one in the right hemisphere that processes information from the left eye. The fact that the visual cortex resides in both hemispheres does not have anything to do with the different proclivities of the hemispheres as understood (and often misunderstood) by people who talk about right-brained vs. left-brained thinkers. Visual processing offers advantages, not because it combines linear/analytical/scientific thinking with holistic/synthetic/artistic thinking, but because it is faster than verbal processing, it can combine more information into single chunks in working memory, and it allows us to see patterns and spot exceptions in the data that would not be otherwise apparent.

In addition to the excerpt that you quoted, I also found the following amusing:
Quote:
Translating data into images allows people to spot patterns, anomalies, proportions and relationships. When done well, it lets the eye create the narrative; people teach themselves, rather than being told.

I've boldfaced the section that I find absurd. People don't teach themselves how to read graphics any more than they teach themselves how to read words. Data visualizations offer advantages, but they are not self-explanatory. People who create data visualizations interpret the data in the process just as much as they do when describing the same information in words. The author is implying that data visualizations are more objective than other forms of display, which is not the case.

Perhaps we should be grateful that this journalist did not further propagate the myths that we humans use only 10% of our brains and that we can simultaneously hold seven chunks of information in memory. Journalists must often write about topics that they understand only shallowly, and theyoften make errors such as this as a result. This journalist should have had someone who is expert in the field review the content before publication.

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Stephen Few
OptionExplicitVBA

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Reply with quote  #3 
The quote you've pulled sounds like another version of the data-visualization-always-makes-boring-stuff-interesting trope. Letting "the eye create the narrative" and "teaching [yourself]...rather than being told" presupposes being told information is a negative (why?). The reviewer appears to channel the "show don't tell" guidance often found in fields like creative writing. But the reapplication here, as you've pointed out, fundamentally misunderstands display mediums and data interpretation. 

The idea that good visualization takes advantage of our hemispheres in a "balanced" way is another bizarre trope. Compromise, bipartisanship, equality are popular ideas because we understand that certain systems work best (well, "best" is probably a stretch here, but to keep things short I'm bypassing political implications) when we optimize competing values. But our brains don't necessarily work this way, and the right vs left-brain compromise is another wink to the idea that equal parts creativity must be added to save an otherwise boring display. 

One last troupe. The article begins with Playfair's breakthrough contributions to the field and ends with, "The Revolution has just begun." Revolution? What? (Feels like we've been on the cusp of an impending punctuated equilibrium for a decade now.)

Quote:
 Future infographics will be digital, data will stream in real-time and viewers’ interactions will determine what is presented. When this happens, what constitutes a good infographic will change.


This isn't revolutionary: real-time data streaming with viewer interaction already exists! As well, we don't have to ask new and emerging infographics how they'd like to be judged. We can go to the research and to understand what works, what doesn't, and why.

In my head, I thought my reply would be two sentences. Now, I'm all worked up. Anyway, you should consider writing a letter to the magazine. They're more likely to print an expert's critique of their work.

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Jordan Goldmeier
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