Visualization Makes Things Real

Vision is the sense we most identify with: it tells us where we are, who we are talking to, what we are doing. It defines our world like no other sense. What we can see is real, for better or worse.

Reproductive Cloning

In 2003, Nigel Holmes was working on an information graphic on stem cells for Stanford Magazine. This was the result of extensive discussions with the scientists, in the course of which the subject of reproductive cloning had come up. Yet the graphic seemingly makes no mention of that topic.

Stanford Cloning Information Graphic

Reading the copy carefully, you might notice an odd paragraph at the bottom that is very strongly worded for no obvious reason.

Stanford researchers adamantly oppose so-called “reproductive cloning” in which a blastocyst would be implanted in a woman’s uterus, perhaps leading to a pregnancy.

What had happened? In the first iteration of the diagram, Holmes drew figures of female and male humans at the bottom of this image, stating that, in theory, the process of cloning shown in the upper part of the diagram could produce a human being. Seeing this, the scientists at Stanford threatened in no uncertain terms to withdraw from the interview and disassociate themselves completely from anything that was written (or drawn).

But why? The “offending” human figures had a caption that clearly stated that the Stanford scientists had no intention of doing this, and rather believed that this should be banned. But they were so uncomfortable with the “reality” of the image, which seemed to overpower the text, that they insisted that it be removed.

Guns

In a similar way, this map of gun permit holders in Westchester County, NY, created a strong response. I am not interested in the criticism (the map ignores population density, permits don’t mean actual guns, lots of guns can be bought without permits, privacy concerns, etc.), but rather the immediate reaction when you see this.

westchester

There are a lot of dots on this map, and they are everywhere! We can argue about the size of the dots, etc., but the point remains: lots of (potential) guns. Everywhere.

The information behind this is supposedly public, the total number of permit holders certainly is. But a number doesn’t tell you anything, it’s just a number. We read lots of numbers all the time without even realizing the order of magnitude. Showing the same information on a choropleth map of census tracts would perhaps create a nice, accurate, colorful map, but would not have the same effect. The fact that each permit is represented separately makes for a much stronger impact.

Conclusions

Visual representation gives numbers and concepts a reality they don’t otherwise have. Choosing the right one, and even choosing whether or not to create the visualization, makes a difference.


Many thanks to Nigel Holmes for letting me use the cloning image and providing a considerable part of the explanatory text.

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