How many colours do you need to visualise data scored on a five-point scale?
If you went with the obvious answer of five colours, here’s what you get:
The green and grey figure wins in two ways. First, it tells a story: about a third of respondents view Wikipedia favourably. (Although there are other interpretations of the data shown, a good figure emphasises a single message.) Second, the grey and green version just looks better.
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler said Einstein. Except, he didn’t. His version of the quote was four times longer.
I’m not surprised that it took a non scientist to paraphrase and create the short, popular version. As scientists, we are not accustomed to brevity. We want to provide every detail. We read papers filled with columns of 10pt text. We construct figures with dozens of lines and colours. We spare no bit of white space when we design posters. And don’t get me started on logos for scientific campaigns (long story short: too many elements, too many colours, and too literal).
We lack minimalism.
You may argue that detail, nuance, and chains of logic—hallmarks of science—are not easily reduced to 280 characters or a sexy soundbite. I don’t disagree. But there are still aspects of minimalism we should embrace.
Every writer leaves a hidden fingerprint in their texts whether they know it or not. It’s hidden in the relative usage of words: some words appear more than average and other words less. Imagine there’s a rumour that a well established author has written a new book under a pen name, but they’re are pretending that this is not the case. One piece of evidence that the authors are one in the same is to count the number mundane words like and, but or -ly adverbs used within the new book and then compare the numbers to the author’s past works. Authors use surprisingly similar numbers of each word over the length of a book. Don’t believe me? Then check out Ben Blatt’s book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve.
The title of this post is a nod to Blatt’s book. In this, he statistically analyses word frequency in a range of texts from literature to fan fiction to New York Times bestsellers. He uses numbers to teach us about writing. Early on, he shows how a reduction in usage of -ly adverbs correlates with a book’s appeal. This is but one of many predictors of a text’s success based only on word frequency. In the same vein, I’m going to scrutinise my own scientific writing to find room for improvement. Navel-gazing? Yes. Will you learn something if you read on? Also yes.
Have you ever noticed the similarities between stock images that convey an increase? More often than not, it’s an arrow initially heading up at about a 30° angle, followed by a downturn, before continuing back up. There’s occasionally a second down-and-up for good measure. It’s sufficiently cliche that Yale Economics should feel a little embarrassed to have incorporated it into their logo.
In the spirit of an English teacher inferring a lot from a little, I wonder if the downturns are intended to imbue some kind of story arc to the progress implied by the ascending arrow? As in, you have to get knocked down before you can get back up. Or maybe the downturns are there to instil a sense of realism?
Absurd as these rhetorical questions sound, they hint at a surprisingly profound issue about fake data and what makes it look real.
Science is full of abstractions. A line plot is an abstraction. A false-colour image is an abstraction. Even scientific notation like 6.0 × 1023 is an abstraction. Abstractions like these are central to science, invoked all the time, and easy to understand. Other abstractions are far from simple and may cause more confusion than clarity.
Abstraction is a slippery slope. Things can quickly get out of hand. Let’s start with a simple abstraction like velocity. The units, metres per second or kilometres per hour, tell us what it is: how fast something moves. I imagine most scientists would still be comfortable if I increase the level of abstraction by calculating the acceleration (i.e., moving from m s−1 to m s−2). But what if I had instead starting talking about a quantity in m2 s−1, not m s−2? Diffusivity and viscosity are such quantities; they measure how quickly something spreads. All I did was change m s−1 to m2 s−1 and I’ve taken a concept a kid can understand to something that may trip up an undergraduate physicist.
Web developers and programmers have a lot riding on the quality of their product. If it behaves in an unusual manner, it’ll frustrate users. If it’s unattractive, it won’t attract users. If it’s no good, it will lose users. Users are the primary concern. Consequently, there are fields dedicated to this concern: User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX).
Because web developers and programmers have a much wider potential audience than scientists, they have a better handle on the importance and behaviour of the end user. Scientists could learn a thing or two about UI/UX.
Journalism and science have very different time scales. A week-old newspaper is barely worth reading. A week-old scientific paper is still warm from the photocopier. Journalism neglects this discrepancy and pressures science to hurry up. Numerous headlines with the eye-roll-inducing opening “A new study shows” imply that only the newest (or weirdest) science is worthy of attention. Google declares about 2000 times as many results for that phrase compared to “an old study shows”.
To make sense of the differences between science and its representation in the media, it first helps to figure out what does and doesn’t make news, and what does and doesn’t get widely shared or discussed. With that established, we’re better positioned to overcome the challenges of communicating all scientific research, not just the sexy aspects that make good headlines.