What is the purpose of blogging about visualization? Is it to make fun of the bad stuff? Is it to point to pretty things? Is it to explain why things are good or bad? Is it to expand the landscape of ideas and break new ground? Or is it to discuss matters at great length that ultimately don’t matter all that much?
I criticize things, and I think it’s important to do that. I don’t regret any of my postings, however strong they may have been, and however mean they may have sounded. It was all done in good faith and with the intent to point out issues and get people to pay attention.
But increasingly, I’m questioning the thinking that some of that criticism is coming from. I’m not arguing against any particular issue people like to bring up, but I am starting to wonder how much of it is simply coming out of narrow-mindedness and stubbornness. How much of it would be obviated by sitting back, taking a deep breath, and trying to see things from a different angle?
This is not just a question of tone and intensity, but one that goes much deeper: how much do we really know? When you start to ask that question in visualization, it becomes clear very quickly how shockingly little we actually really understand. Going on and on about pie charts? Point to a paper that’s actually showing that they’re bad! Yes, such a paper exists. But how many studies have shown the same thing? Not that many. And it gets much worse for things like 3D bar charts, etc. There is very little support for the religious zealotry with which we like to damn these things.
Then there is the question of different goals. There isn’t just one use for visualization, and things created for different purposes need to be judged against different standards. It’s all about trade-offs and making decisions. An audience of readers on the web is going to need a different approach than an audience of experts who know the data really well and have a vested interest in digging deeper. An interactive piece on a news media website will need to be much more compelling than a corporate dashboard if anybody’s going to actually bother doing something with it. There is not just one purpose, or one audience, or one way to do things.
It’s encouraging to see the huge interest in visualization. And it’s even more encouraging to see some of the recent and upcoming work on rhetoric, persuasion, and related questions. Because it matters. Communication matters. Data matters. Visualization matters.
Discussing visualization needs to matter too. But it can only do so if it comes from a place of understanding, respect, and an open mind.