Why scientists need to be better at data visualization

The scientific literature is riddled with bad charts and graphs, leading to misunderstanding and worse. Avoiding design missteps can improve understanding of research.

(12 Nov 2019, feed from Knowable Magazine) Imagine a science textbook without images. No charts, no graphs, no illustrations or diagrams with arrows and labels. The science would be a lot harder to understand.

That’s because humans are visual creatures by nature. People absorb information in graphic form that would elude them in words. Images are effective for all kinds of storytelling, especially when the story is complicated, as it so often is with science. Scientific visuals can be essential for analyzing data, communicating experimental results and even for making surprising discoveries.

Visualizations can reveal patterns, trends and connections in data that are difficult or impossible to find any other way, says Bang Wong, creative director of MIT’s Broad Institute. “Plotting the data allows us to see the underlying structure of the data that you wouldn’t otherwise see if you’re looking at a table.”

And yet few scientists take the same amount of care with visuals as they do with generating data or writing about it. The graphs and diagrams that accompany most scientific publications tend to be the last things researchers do, says data visualization scientist Seán O’Donoghue. “Visualization is seen as really just kind of an icing on the cake.”

As a result, science is littered with poor data visualizations that confound readers and can even mislead the scientists who make them. Deficient data visuals can reduce the quality and impede the progress of scientific research. And with more and more scientific images making their way into the news and onto social media — illustrating everything from climate change to disease outbreaks — the potential is high for bad visuals to impair public understanding of science.

Read the full story with guidelines on how to prepare good visualization from Knowable Magazine here.

 

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