Making decisions is greatly affected by the way in which we display the data necessary to understand the situation well enough to make a valid decision. Too much data presented in a dry, formal way can be worse for decision making that no data at all. Not being aware of relevant data because it is surrounded by everyday sensory input prevents us from making crucial decisions.
One difference between good scientists and advertising people is that scientists are (supposedly) trained to present data in a way that allows others to analyze it and make decisions. Because of the reputation of scientific data, advertisers will often present data in the guise of scientific accuracy, but the result is always that you should buy their product. Animated commercials of a medicine entering your blood stream to conquer plague are not good examples of scientific visualization, although they could be honest teaching tools.
What is the best way to present data to help people make an honest decision? That is a topic often overlooked by people who collect data and even those who analyze it. As a young man, I certainly fell into that trap. Many years ago an instrument I designed to fly on the geosynchronous spacecraft ATS-5 continuously generated electron and proton energy spectra several times a minute. By looking at traditional plots of counting rate versus energy for each sweep of the spectrum, one could only see chaotic changes, but there was no obvious pattern.
My advisor, Prof. MacIlwain, took the lead and with what was cutting edge technology at the time (the ’60s), created color spectrograms that enabled immediate understanding of the dynamics of what we called “plasma clouds” in the magnetosphere. The concept of encoding data to make a single image of a whole day’s worth of spectra was the key to understanding the wealth of data we were generating. Later the technique was applied to ground-based optical spectra taken of the aurora borealis to make what is now called “keograms” after the native word for auroras. Again, the change in presentation enabled immediate comprehension of phenomena causing the displays, and when linked with simultaneous particle data taken from space and displayed as spectrograms, the flow of energy and particles ultimately from the sun to the aurora could be traced with ease.
Since that time I have been interested in what is now called scientific visualization. The term can refer to either static images or videos showing changes with time. Since the goal of scientific visualization is to enable human observers to make better decisions, I was recently delighted to see an excellent example of an effective presentation made for a general purpose audience. The topic under discussion was the relationship between religion and babies. How is that for putting an audience on guard and provoking an argument? Think about the experiences you have had all your life with religion and making babies. Throw into that the general alarm over population growth and its attendant problems. This could lead to many arguments without accomplishing much; certainly without achieving understanding. We all have opinions about the role of religion and about sexual behavior, but are those opinions supported by anything more than ignorance and prejudice?
This topic was discussed in a TED presentation by Hans Rosling (above). Before going on, you might want to look at this video. You can quibble about his conclusions such as predicting the world population will top out at about 10 billion regardless of any national or religious preferences, but I am not trying to force your decision or support his conclusions. Rather, I hope you will appreciate the effective way that complicated data was organized and presented such that a general audience could easily understand the trends the author was exposing. You might agree or disagree with his analysis, but the data is honest and is honestly presented in such a way that non-specialists can easily see the trends. Therefore, if you disagree, you must do it in such a way that your analysis is also supported by the data in the video. That is the power of good scientific presentations.
Rosling’s talk centers mostly on the population data and factual content. However, the talk also has what musicians might call a delightful little coda. After the video and discussion of the probable interpretation of the data, the author used common boxes to demonstrate the implications of what was shown on the video. Because the whole presentation was organized smoothly, the difference between the video presentation of facts and the demonstration of their meaning might not be obvious to an unwary observer. The video is an excellent example of effective scientific visualization. The demonstration is not directly based on input data, but is a graphic means to explain the implications of the scientific visualization. This type of shift from pure data to analysis is common, but one must be on the alert for it. Politicians are particularly adept at making this transition in a way that favors their agenda.
Al Gore has gained sympathizers and detractors for the way he presents data on global warming. Compare his call to arms with Hans Rosling’s handling of a topic that is always controversial — maybe more so than global warming. Al is being a politician and Hans is being a scientist. Both professions and goals are respectable, but they are different. There are many scientific papers studying global warming, and there are many screeds discussing the right way to go about making babies. When you hear any of these controversial topics being discussed, think of the source of the supporting data and carefully consider how it is being presented. Is it factual or analysis? Is it science or propaganda? Is it helping you make good decisions or forcing your choice?