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How to Be an Educated Consumer of Infographics: David Byrne on the Art-Science of Visual Storytelling

Cultivating the ability to experience the “geeky rapture” of metaphorical thinking and pattern recognition.

As an appreciator of the art of visual storytelling by way of good information graphics — an art especially endangered in this golden age of bad infographics served as linkbait — I was thrilled and honored to be on the advisory “Brain Trust” for a project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who has set out to highlight the very best infographics produced each year, online and off. (Disclaimer for the naturally cynical: No money changed hands.) The Best American Infographics 2013 (public library) is now out, featuring the finest examples from the past year — spanning everything from happiness to sports to space to gender politics, and including a contribution by friend-of-Brain Pickings Wendy MacNaughton — with an introduction by none other than David Byrne. Accompanying each image is an artist statement that explores the data, the choice of visual representation, and why it works.

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Byrne, who knows a thing or two about creativity and has himself produced some delightfully existential infographics, writes:

The very best [infographics] engender and facilitate an insight by visual means — allow us to grasp some relationship quickly and easily that otherwise would take many pages and illustrations and tables to convey. Insight seems to happen most often when data sets are crossed in the design of the piece — when we can quickly see the effects on something over time, for example, or view how factors like income, race, geography, or diet might affect other data. When that happens, there’s an instant “Aha!”…

Byrne addresses the healthy skepticism many of us harbor towards the universal potency of infographics, reminding us that the medium is not the message — the message is the message:

A good infographic … is — again — elegant, efficient, and accurate. But do they matter? Are infographics just things to liven up a dull page of type or the front page of USA Today? Well, yes, they do matter. We know that charts and figures can be used to support almost any argument. . . . Bad infographics are deadly!

One would hope that we could educate ourselves to be able to spot the evil infographics that are being used to manipulate us, or that are being used to hide important patterns and information. Ideally, an educated consumer of infographics might develop some sort of infographic bullshit detector that would beep when told how the trickle-down economic effect justifies fracking, for example. It’s not easy, as one can be seduced relatively easily by colors, diagrams and funny writing.

And, indeed, at the heart of the aspiration to cultivate a kind of visual literacy so critical for modern communication. Here are a few favorite pieces from the book that embody that ideal of intelligent elegance and beautiful revelation of truth:

America’s Most Popular Birthdays
The days of the year, ranked by the number of babies born on each day in the United States (Matt Stiles, NPR data journalist)

Byrne — who believes the best use of infographics allows us to “experience a kind of geeky rapture as our senses are amplified and expanded through charts and illustrations” — is especially fond of one sub-genre:

Flowcharts [are] a form of poetry. And poetry is its own reward.

Indeed, flowcharts have a singular way of living at the intersection of the pragmatic and the existential:

Email: Help for Addicts
A handy flowchart to help you decide if you should check your email. (Wendy MacNaughton, independent illustrator, for Dell / Forbes)
How to Be Happy
Just ask yourself one question. (Gustavo Vieira Dias, creative director of DDB Tribal Vienna)

Some are visually elaborate:

The Breaking Bad Body Count
All of the deaths in the first fifty-four episodes of AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad,’ with each deceased character represented by a faux chemical formula indicating when he or she died, how they died, and who killed them. (John D. LaRue)
The Four Kinds of Dog
Analyzing the DNA of 85 dog breeds, scientists found that genetic similarities clustered them into four broad categories. The groupings reveal how breeders have recombined ancestral stock to create new breeds; a few still carry many wolflike genes. Researchers named the groups for a distinguishing trait in the breeds dominating the clusters, though not every dog necessarily shows that trait. The length of the colored bars in a breed’s genetic profile shows how much of the dog’s DNA falls into each category. (John Tomanio, senior graphics editor, National Geographic)

Others appear more visually abstract yet derive from precise and concrete data sets:

Paths through New York City
‘Flow map’ of travel in New York City derived from the locations of tweets tagged with the locations of their senders. The starting and ending points of each trip come from a pair of geotagged tweets by the same person, and the path in between is an estimate, routed along the densest corridor of other people’s geotagged tweets. (Eric Fischer, artist in residence at the Exploratorium in San Francisco)
Planets Everywhere
All of the planets discovered outside the Solar System. (Jan Willem Tulp, freelance information designer, for Scientific American)

Then there’s the mandatory love of pie charts and its derivatives:

Ten Artists, Ten Years
A revolution in color over ten extraordinary years in art history. Each pie chart represents an individual painting, with the five most prominent colors shown proportionally. (Arthur Buxton)
Seasonal Produce Calendars
The availability of produce in the northern hemisphere by month and season. (Russell van Kraayenburg)

The greatest power of infographics, however, lies in two things: Their ability to weave visual metaphors that enhance our understanding, something particularly potent given how essential metaphorical thinking is to the way we communicate and learn, and their role in igniting the very pattern recognition that fuels our creative comprehension. Byrne writes:

We have an inbuilt ability to manipulate visual metaphors in ways we cannot do with the things and concepts they stand for — to use them as malleable, conceptual Tetris blocks or modeling clay that we can more easily squeeze, stack, and reorder. And then — whammo! — a pattern emerges, and we’ve arrived someplace we would never have gotten by any other means.

Complement The Best American Infographics 2013 with Nathan Yau’s indispensable guide to telling stories with data and Taschen’s scrumptious showcase of the best information graphics from around the world.

BP

Mark Twain on Religion and Our Human Egotism

“The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality.”

A large part of what made Mark Twain the greatest American satirist was his capacity for cultural nitpicking, from his irreverent advice to little girls to his critique of the press to his snarky commentary on the outrageous requests he received. But one subject to which Twain applied his exquisite satire with absolute seriousness was religion. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (public library) — the highly anticipated sequel to the excellent first installment — Twain’s grievances with “God” come fully ablaze.

In April of 1906, Twain — who famously believed that any claim of originality was merely misguided narcissism — offers this humorous lament on religion as a manifestation of human egotism:

The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality. The race has always been able to think well of itself, and it doesn’t like people who throw bricks at its naïve self-appreciation. It is sensitive upon this point. The other day I furnished a sentiment in response to a man’s request — to wit:

“The noblest work of God?” Man.

“Who found it out?” Man.

I thought it was very good, and smart, but the other person didn’t.

‘If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.’
Twain treated all forms of dogmatic authority, from religious to parental, with equal irreverence. Spread from his ‘Advice to Little Girls’ illustrated by Vladimir Rudinsky. Click image for more.

In another meditation, dictated in 1906 and posthumously published in 1963 in the Hudson Review under the title “Reflections on Religion,” then eventually included in the altogether excellent The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, Twain revisits the subject of evidence-free idolatry of deistic character:

We deal in a curious and laughable confusion of notions concerning God. We divide Him in two, bring half of Him down to an obscure and infinitesimal corner of the world to confer salvation upon a little colony of Jews — and only Jews, no one else — and leave the other half of Him throned in heaven and looking down and eagerly and anxiously watching for results. We reverently study the history of the earthly half, and deduce from it the conviction that the earthly half has reformed, is equipped with morals and virtues, and in no way resembles the abandoned, malignant half that abides upon the throne. We conceive that the earthly half is just, merciful, charitable, benevolent, forgiving, and full of sympathy for the sufferings of mankind and anxious to remove them.

Apparently we deduce this character not by examining facts, but by diligently declining to search them, measure them, and weigh them. The earthly half requires us to be merciful, and sets us an example by inventing a lake of fire and brimstone in which all of us who fail to recognize and worship Him as God are to be burned through all eternity. And not only we, who are offered these terms, are to be thus burned if we neglect them, but also the earlier billions of human beings are to suffer this awful fate, although they all lived and died without ever having heard of Him or the terms at all. This exhibition of mercifulness may be called gorgeous. We have nothing approaching it among human savages, nor among the wild beasts of the jungle.

‘All gods are better than their reputation,’ inscription dated December 23, 1902 from a first edition of ‘A Double-Barrelled Detective Story’ (Kevin MacDonnell Collection)

An early proponent of the conviction that evidence should outweigh mythology, he continues:

There is no evidence that there is to be a Heaven hereafter. … Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence — evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.

[…]

According to the hearsay evidence the character of every conspicuous god is made up of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, sorrow for all suffering and desire to extinguish it. Opposed to this beautiful character — built wholly upon valueless hearsay evidence – it is the absolute authentic evidence furnished us every day in the year, and verifiable by our eyes and our other senses, that the real character of these gods is destitute of love, mercy, compassion, justice and other gentle and excellent qualities, and is made up of all imaginable cruelties, persecutions and injustices. The hearsay character rests upon evidence only — exceedingly doubtful evidence. The real character rests upon proof — proof unassailable.

Twain then traces the evolution — or, as it were, devolution — of religion over the course of human history, considering Christianity’s odds for survival:

Do I think the Christian religion is here to stay? Why should I think so? There had been a thousand religions before it was born. They are all dead. There had been millions of gods before ours was invented. Swarms of them are dead and forgotten long ago. Our is by long odds the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination — and shall He and his Christianity be immortal against the great array of probabilities furnished by the theological history of the past? No. I think that Christianity and its God must follow the rule. They must pass on in their turn and make room for another God and a stupider religion. Or perhaps a better [one] than this? No. That is not likely. History shows that in the matter of religions we progress backward and not the other way.

(More than a century later, legendary atheist Richard Dawkins would come to echo this sentiment in his newly published biography, writing: “I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”)

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 is an indispensable trove of insight into one of modern history’s greatest minds. Complement it with the story of how Twain masterminded the middlebrow magazine, his little-known poetry, and the heart-warming fan mail he received over the course of his colorful career.

Thanks, Andrew

BP

Alan Lightman on Science, Genius, and Common Sense

A homemade rocket, a Feynman fiasco, and why genius and common sense don’t always coexist.

Physicist Alan Lightman is one of the finest essayists writing today, the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT, and the celebrated author of both nonfiction and novels, including the excellent Einstein’s Dreams. At a special staging of the invariably wonderful science storytelling event StoryCollider for a recent event at MIT, Alan told a magnificent story about building a rocket from scratch at age thirteen, working with the great Richard Feynman as a grad student at CalTech, and partaking in a series of unfortunate events involving an amputee lizard astronaut, a monumental black hole discovery that perished on a black board, and a Feynman-Hawking rivalry decided by a cleaning lady. Miraculously, it all makes sense — more than that, Alan’s masterful storytelling leaves you with an ever-deeper awareness that the essence of science is not equations and a profound understanding of true science as necessitating more than meticulous calculations to thrive, to endure, and to matter. Please enjoy:

At the MIT event, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Alan. Mesmerized by his story, I asked him whether he had any visual ephemera immortalizing his teenage rocket. Though his original diagram was lost, Alan was kind enough to recreate it and dig out the original 1962 photograph of his finished makeshift rocket, shared here for our collective enjoyment:

Alan’s new book, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, comes out in early 2014 — start sharpening your neurons. Meanwhile, can join me in supporting the wonderful StoryCollider here.

BP

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