A couple of years ago I heard a conference presentation where the professor was making jokes about visualization and its role in scientific presentations. He said numbers were used in a presentation when we knew what we talk about, figures and plots when think we knew, but couldn’t explain, and animations when we had no clue. It was a joke he made about his own presentation, still, i felt somehow not true. And let us be frank, visualizations are often looked down as cheap marketing tricks even by people who skillfully and regularly use them.
To show how un-true this reputation is, I embedded here a TED-Ed presentation from Hans Rosling:
There are many lessons in this short talk, about the world, about our cultural perceptions, and about presenting and analyzing data. I would like the comment the last ones.
Visualization is the king
Visualization works very well in the hands of Hans Rosling: the topic of the presentation itself is how visualization can assist in the analysis of data even at the simplest level. Moreover, the key to the presentation which was given to a non-expert audience is the vivid engagement that Hans Rosling can achieve using the very same visual tools.
Hunger in Africa? Social inequalities in the world? Come on! Let us be frank, it is a topic which commands polite, but utterly bored audience, even in a charity event. Yet you can hear people laughing, cheering during the video. And I also suspect that we actually have people who understand the whole message about Africa and third world countries. So this video is an excellent example that all the levels: both collecting knowledge and disseminating it can profit visualization aids.
Is visualization a stupid ho?
So when visuals got such a bad reputation in science?
It is true that there are many very bad examples of excessive, empty visuals at conferences. It is also true that are borderline stupid visuals are very common in textbooks and other reference books. The professor in my intro was not wrong about that visuals are also often used to hide lack of expertise or insufficient analysis. Yes, it is all true, but have you heard anyone complain e.g. about equitions?
Maybe equations and references are the most likely place of errors and typos in any kind of scientific text (which is scary, if we really think about it). Excessive use of equations in a presentation, textbooks or even in research texts is often a sign that the author desperately wants to look more scientific – kind of showing off. Have you heard anyone cracking jokes about equations in a scientific conference?
Think about this when you prepare your next ppt!