Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Infographics for children: Simon Rogers and the illusion of certainty

Graphic by Nicholas Blechman and Simon Rogers
Now that I grabbed your attention with a pretentious headline, here's some news for you: Simon Rogers has announced two new infographics books, Infographics: Human Body, in collaboration with Peter Grundy, and Infographics: Animal Kingdom, with Nicholas Blechman. Simon has written a nice post about them. I'm pre-ordering copies of both for my kids. They look gorgeous.

Here's an intriguing quote from Simon's article. Read it carefully:

"So, why produce a book of infographics for children? Data is a way of tackling vagueness, something children dislike intensely. Facts are black and white, right and wrong to the average six year old. They want certainty."

That's accurate, as any parent I know would confirm.  The drive to find absolute certainty —even when certainty isn't feasible— seems to be innate, and it's only when we reach maturity that we can begin to overcome it through knowledge and effort. Data, facts, evidence, are always fuzzy, messy, and incomplete. Rational thinking cannot be based on a quixotic pursue for certainties, but on a solid understanding of probability: A "true" explanation in science, after all, is simply the most likely explanation based on thorough observation, testing, and logic.

A huge challenge we visualization and infographics designers face, I believe, is that our work can reinforce this illusion of certainty, and prolong the life of the kid our reader once was. That's why we tend to be persuaded by clean and clear graphics, no matter how dubious their claims are. Or so it seems. See also this, this, and this.

This is related to the points I tried to make in my presentations last week, which have been beautifully summarized by Suyeon Son, a student at Northwestern University. If she were a student of mine, I'd be proud. Just read her analysis of an interactive graphic by The New York Times. Don't worry, Suyeon. You should not be embarrassed when you are misled by graphics. It happens to me all the time, too. That's our inner children talking.*

*Suyoun quotes me saying that 60% of people tend to oversimplify with graphics. I didn't say (or meant to say!) that. This mistake is probably not her fault, but is due to how thick my accent gets sometimes. What I did say is that what the map is showing is that 42% of the population of the U.S. produces 50% of the GDP, which is hardly surprising.