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Making Sense of Science Infographics

Oct 18, 2013



This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky. Chances are, without even realizing it, you've seen at least one infographic today. Did you catch the weather forecast this morning? Maybe you saw a rain cloud moving across a map of the U.S. Maybe you opened the paper to find pie charts of the latest poll results. Now those are infographics.

In the age of big data, we depend on them more and more to communicate lots of information quickly. But not all infographics are created equal. Some mislead us or confuse us. So how can we tell the good infographics from the bad, and can we use infographics to talk about science without just dumbing it down?

Let me introduce our guests now. Gareth Cook is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist. He's also editor of a book out this month called, "The Best American Infographics 2013." It's a collection of some of the best of the past year as chosen by Gareth. He joins us from Boston today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

GARETH COOK: Thanks, John. It's great to be here.

DANKOSKY: And Stephen Kosslyn is a neuroscientists and founding dean of the Minerva School of Arts and Sciences in San Francisco. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Kosslyn.


DANKOSKY: First of all, I'll start with you Gareth. Infographics are nothing new for you. You've used them as a science journalist for years, but it seems as if they're really big right now. Maybe you could explain, first of all, what an infographic is.

COOK: Well, sure. To start, an infographic is just information in graphic form. It's a visual display of data, so it can be as simple as a line graph or a pie chart or as ambitious as a 3D interactive exploration of how a tornado is formed. So there's all different kinds of infographics.

DANKOSKY: Am I right - go ahead.

COOK: I was just going to say, I mean, you also asked why are we seeing so much of them now and I think you're absolutely right. We're seeing them all over the place. And I think that the fundamental reason is that what infographics do is they allow you to quickly make sense of a large amount of information, and a large amount of information is one of the defining features of our time.

If you just think about all the data that we have now: We have satellites, we have location data on our phones, we have tech searches, we have all these different kinds of data and we feel overwhelmed by it. So we have big data and we need big help, and that's what infographics are. They're help.

DANKOSKY: Now, when I told people on Twitter that I was going to be having this conversation, somebody wrote to me and said: You know, infographics are great sometimes but often just a well-written paragraph would tell a much better story. I mean, what can we tell an infographic that we can't just write down in a very nice little paragraph?

COOK: Well, just the medium are two very different things and I know from personal experience how much more effective an infographic can be in certain cases. I covered science for a long time for the Boston Globe and at one point I was doing this story about an experiment that Harvard was planning on doing in which they were going to be cloning stem cells.

And I worked really hard on that paragraph planning what exactly that means, but then the guys over at the infographic department came up with this neat little chart and all of a sudden it was very easy to visualize what it is. So we've very visual thinkers and infographics allow us to tap into that ability to see things visually, and when we read words it a very different process.

DANKOSKY: If you have questions or thought about how you use infographics, you can join us, 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. Now, Stephen, your work is in neuroscience and visual perception. Why exactly do infographics work on us?

KOSSLYN: Infographics draw on our virtuoso abilities to recognize objects. I mean, our brains are absolutely phenomenal in their ability to see something completely unexpected come out of the blue and within a fraction of a second identify what it is. Now that is an amazing thing because if you think about it, we have huge numbers of memories of things we've seen before and in order for you to recognize something, it has to function sort of like a key that fits into the appropriate lock that opens the information that you've learned at previous encounters.

And we're able to do that, we're able to take the input, the key, and compare it to all those locks, all those different memories from pervious experience, and pick out just the right one in a fraction of a second. So our brains are fantastically good at recognizing objects, and we piggybacked on that ability which evolved for all kinds of other reasons - identifying prey and so forth. We've piggybacked on that to convey information effectively.

DANKOSKY: But in order to get that right key, obviously a graphic designer, or someone designing an infographic, would need to know something about visual perception and how the brain works, so give us some guidelines for what's going to make a good, effective infographic for our brains.

KOSSLYN: So I got into this whole business sort of by accident. I was chair of a department in a university and part of my duties were to watch, listen to every single presentation for all the job candidates, major events in the department and so forth. And I vividly remember, there was one, a very distinguished scientist who was presenting using Microsoft template, I think it was Celestial.

It was black background with white rings of Saturn and white stars. And the guy had white lettering that marched across the page, tiny font with huge numbers of words. So I'm looking at this and I noticed that the white letters would fall against the white background so you couldn't see them at all. You clearly need some difference in order to detect there's something there.

And I also noticed they were so small that even if I could see them when they were against the black, I couldn't really read them. And then there was so much up there that it was difficult for me to organize it. And looking at this presentation, I pretty soon stopped listening to what he was saying and just paid attention to how he was presenting it and realized there are these basic psychological principles.

For example, you need a certain amount of contrast to be able to detect something's there at all; has to be a certain size in order to see it, so forth, that this guy who knew them very well was not respecting, not taking advantage. But in fact, we can. It's not that difficult.

DANKOSKY: Yeah. This idea that the most important information should leap out at you first is, I think, key to a good infographic and maybe Gareth you can talk a little bit about that. Some of the ones that you've selected in this book really are very easy to read right away. The stuff you're supposed to know is right there.

COOK: Exactly. I mean, I think that what's interesting about this is that if you think about what science is, it's about a search for patterns. You're trying to find the patterns of nature, the rules of nature. And that's what good infographics do. They allow you to see the patterns. So a well-designed infographic is one in which the pattern just leaps up at you.

So give an example from history just that I think is a great example. There's the Periodic Table where chemists, for a long time, realize there are all these regularities, but they couldn't quite make sense of them. And then Mendeleev comes along and puts in this chart form and all of a sudden all these patterns make sense. You can see over on the East Coast there's the noble gases; over on the other side the alkaline metals and it all just suddenly makes sense.

So that's what we're seeing in infographics today, people who are skilled designers who are able to do that exact same thing. So just to take an example there from this collection, there is a really nice infographic showing the noise pollution underneath the North Atlantic. So in other words, imagine all of the ships going back and forth across the North Atlantic and you realize all of a sudden there are these hotspots where we're making a tremendous amount of noise, and realizing how difficult it must be for the animals living down there.

DANKOSKY: And you made reference to the fact that this is not a new idea, that an infographic of some sort has been around for a very long time. It's outside the world of science, but one of the key examples that you use in your book is this famous infographic of the American south that Abraham Lincoln was fascinated by.

COOK: Absolutely. It's a really interesting story and it shows the power of infographics. So just as the Civil War was just getting underway, as the Union was falling apart, Lincoln became obsessed with this map that shows the American South and what you can see on the map is every single county, and the darker the county, the more slaves that live there.

And when you look at that map, you realize - and Lincoln must have realized as he was looking at it - that the American South is not this uniform block, that there are some areas, the coast of South Carolina, along the Mississippi, where there's a lot more slaves, and other areas where there's much fewer slaves. And that then gave him this political insight, which is that those were the very areas that were much more ardent in their desire to secede from the union, and the other areas were a little more sympathetic to the Union cause.

So you can see him, even centuries ago, going to this infographic to try to make sense of a very complicated situation.

DANKOSKY: Let's go to Diana who's calling from Cincinnati, quickly. Go ahead, Diana. You're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DIANA: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I hear you talking about infographics and what makes a good infographic, but most of the ones I've seen use some words and I wonder about the balance between how much visual information and how much you add words in that to tell the story, and when are you kind of using the left side of your brain versus the right side of your brain, or whatever it is, to sort of figure it out and make it most understandable?

I'll take my answer off the air.

DANKOSKY: Diana, thank you so much. Stephen Kosslyn, do you have a thought about that, about that balance of words versus images?

COOK: Yeah. In my view, you should minimize the number of words and only use them to disambiguate. That is sometimes pictures can be ambiguous. Often in context, they're not. But if they are ambiguous, a well-placed label can go a long way. And just, by the way, this left-brain, right-brain stuff leaves a lot to be desired. You might want to avoid thinking about things that way.

DANKOSKY: Well, I - were going to get to some more phone calls in just a moment. I want to ask you both about how we might become better readers of infographics. Obviously, designing them for optimum effectiveness is very important. But there is so much out there. Gareth, do you have a thought about how we might look at these things in a way that we can gather all this big data that's being thrown at us all the time?

COOK: Well, absolutely. I mean, I think that's a really good question because what we're seeing is more and more of the world being presented to us in these visual forms, more and more information being presented to us this way. And I think it's really important that we become more critical consumers of these infographics. So I think sometimes when people see an infographic, they just have a tendency to say, well, that must be the truth. That must be how it is.

And I think you need to learn to ask some more critical questions for - I mean, a simple question is just, where does this data come from? What is this data? Is there some other data that you might have used? Or you could ask yourself, how has this whole thing been framed? Are there - for example, is it showing some phenomenon over a certain number of years? What happened before or after what's being shown?

DANKOSKY: I think it's really important, though, this idea of bad data. You see a lot of infographics, and if you don't know where the information is coming from, you can very easily think, aha, that tells a nice little story that I should believe is true. But then you look at the study and go, that's a little suspect. You see these a lot, don't you?

COOK: Absolutely. I mean, I think we're - unfortunately, we're in a golden age of bad infographics just because people find them so compelling and so convincing. So if you don't dig deep, I think it's very easy to be misled.

DANKOSKY: So, Stephen, in your world, talk about how infographics are used by scientists, both to try to get their information out and also to understand information themselves.

KOSSLYN: So I think Gareth made a really good point earlier in that a main use for infographics in both cases, both for communication and for discovery, is to discover patterns or convey patterns, to make patterns explicit and accessible that if you just had a column of numbers or some other textual recommendation of it, it would be very hard to see. So scientists use infographics both in discovery. For example, when you're looking at results of brain scans, the brain actually doesn't have all those fancy colors in it.

Those are added as a way to convey information about activation in different areas for the viewer. And it actually takes a little bit of practice to learn how to read these things appropriately. And the way you present that would depend on who the audience is. If you're presenting it to other scientists who are familiar with the conventions, you can do it one way.

But if you're presenting it to the audience, you probably don't want to have it quite so difficult to sort through as the discovery version of the graphics would be and instead try to make it clear exactly what the point is and highlight the most important information.

DANKOSKY: We're talking about the power of infographics. I'm John Dankosky, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

So, Gareth, in your book, "The Best American Infographics 2013," there is a lot of science infographics. What are some good ones in here that you like?

COOK: Well, one of my personal favorites is actually quite a simple one. It's an online infographic. And it's a map of the United States, and what it shows is the wind across the United States at this exact moment. So if you go to your computer, you can call up this map and you see this just gorgeous flow of wind across the country. And I find it quite mesmerizing.

There are other ones that I think are really impressive in different ways. There's one from National Geographic that takes you inside of a cheetah as it's running. So you can see the just delicate structure of its bones. They actually used 3-D scans of all the bones. They used images of the fur and of all the internal organs. And you just get this amazing picture of this animal traveling incredibly quickly.

And there are other - there are others. Another one that I thought was quite impressive that had this sort of stark emotional impact, I think, is just this infographic that showed all the planets that have been discovered around other stars. And it was a simple infographic, but it gives you a sense of just how amazing this universe is around us and how our planet is just one of very many planets out there. So that was an impressive one.

There's another - I mean, I could go on and on, but there's another one that I really quite enjoyed from Nature magazine, which showed the landing of Mars Curiosity. And what was so impressive about it is it just captured this drama. And I think if you're just reading about this, it doesn't capture the sort of visual drama of what happened, you know, Curiosity approaching this planet at an incredible speed, the parachute popping out, this unlikely way of bringing it down with retrorockets and a sky crane. So it just sort of, I think, captures some of the adventure of science.

DANKOSKY: Yeah. I think a lot of our listeners will want to go to that one, and we'll have some on our site Let's go quickly go to Chris in Silicon Valley. Hi, Chris. Go ahead.

CHRIS: Yes. Thanks for taking my call. Yes. I'm a researcher here in Silicon Valley, and I often get asked to describe how Silicon Valley really works and how do startups really happen. And I've written folks about it. I've given hour-long speeches about it. But it wasn't until I did a one-page infographic that told the whole story that really people get it a lot easier than trying to understand the complex topics. But it was really amazing for me the first time to do an infographic and see the effect it has.

DANKOSKY: Well, Chris, thank you very much for that. Stephen Kosslyn, I think some might wonder, though, is - are we just dumbing things down? Are we taking very complex ideas which, in their essence, should be complex and writing kind of a cartoon version of them just to get into people's brains? I mean, should some things be left a little bit more long form outside the infographic realm?

KOSSLYN: Well, depending what question you're asking, different things count as answers. So depending on what information you want to convey, you should make it as simple as you can but not too simple. I mean, you should - I think that's actually a quote from Einstein, something similar. The idea is that you should figure out what the point is and present just that information and not additional information. Don't make the viewer have to sort through a visual haystack to find that information-conveying needle.

If you have so much information for your point that is overwhelming for the viewer, you might consider having a series of infographics, or you might consider using the dynamic capabilities of computers so you can change things over time in a way that each moment, it's not overwhelming the viewer. The key is to be very clear on exactly what point you want to make.

DANKOSKY: Stephen Kosslyn is...

COOK: And, John, if I - I'm sorry. I just wanted to jump in here for a second. Could I just...

DANKOSKY: Very quickly, just a few seconds.

KOSSLYN: I'd just say infographics are stories, and the whole art is what to leave out of a good story. I think that applies to writing and infographics.

DANKOSKY: And there's a lot of interesting infographics in this book, "The Best American Infographics 2013." Gareth Cook is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and editor of this new book. Thank you so much Gareth.

COOK: Thank you.

DANKOSKY: Thanks also to Stephen Kosslyn, a neuroscientist and the founding dean of the Minerva School of Arts and Sciences in San Francisco.

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.