Thursday, July 5, 2012

The role of analogies in science infographics

See the video

I am getting ready for a presentation about science news infographics next week. As you may have already noticed (here and here), I am very interested in the visual display of scientific insights. Many of my own infographics (12345...) deal with them.

Analogies and metaphors are among the things that concern me the most about how we present science to readers and viewers. See the video above, by The Guardian. It explains the Higgs field and mechanism with a tray, a bunch of ping pong balls, and sugar. It's not a bad tactic: a considerable portion of contemporary science is so alien and counterintuitive that it's hard to grasp if it's not by relating it to entities that we can see and manipulate in the real world.

The Guardian's video reminded me of a graphic I loved when I was a kid (I have not been able to retrieve it from the Internet). It was published in one of those old children illustrated encyclopedias, and it depicted our body as a medieval fortress. The mouth was the main gate, and the knights on its walls and towers were the antibodies that protect us from external invaders, bacteria and virus, that looked like brutish barbarians. At the time, I thought it was a great analogy. I still do, but I also believe that the sheer simplicity of the analogy was also its main weakness, as it obscured relevant information.

The good side of clear analogies is that they may be engaging starting points to understand complex issues. I've used them in the past: one of my animations I mentioned before shows Einstein as a goofy wooden figure in a space ship. However, I am also convinced that news media like them so much because they are excuses for shallowness: instead of using an analogy just as a hook that gets readers interested in a topic, journalists and designers sometimes stop in the ping pong balls and the sugar, as if they were the entire story. Scientific discoveries are usually much more than that. Without overwhelming your audience, their intricate beauty should not be hidden. Moreover, analogies and metaphors 
visual and verbal can be tricky if they are presented with no nuances. Think about how many people still don't get what it really means that genes are "selfish".

Further reading:
A few articles: this, this, and this
Lakoff's famous Metaphors We Live By
A more recent view: I Is an Other, by James Geary
The massive Objectivity, one of the best books on visual science I've read
A notable collection of essays: Picturing Science (considering the price of used copies in Amazon, I should sell mine!)