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Paper: An Empire Built On Sand

It's not a secret that I think that we need to ask some harder questions about the foundations that we're building visualization on. In a paper to be presented at the BELIV workshop at VIS next week, I'm making the case for that more extensively than I have so far. The full title of the paper is An Empire Built On Sand: Reexamining What We Think We Know About Visualization.

The paper starts out by talking about the recent pie charts work where Drew Skau and I showed that the 90-year old belief that we read pie charts by angle does not appear to be correct. I've collected a few more examples, most of which show how a belief turned out to not be true after some further study. Sometimes our beliefs turn out to be correct, of course, and I have one or two examples to show that as well.

My point is not that everything we know is wrong, but that we need to ask a simple question: How do we know that? And if we can't point to actual research, we need to do that research. And even when there is existing research, we need to keep questioning that.

After all, this is how an actual science works: facts are collected and theories put forward, and those are believed until they're shown to be false or incomplete. But just relying on a handful of books that are based on little or no research doesn't make for a good foundation if we ever want to claim visualization to be a science.

We also need to be more critical of the seminal papers we like to keep citing over and over. They are obviously important, but they're not sacrosanct. The same is true for the handful of classic visualization pieces we love a little bit too much.

I also have some specific suggestions in the paper, both about systematic research and a list of research topics that lend themselves to systematic studies. There's also criticism of the current funding situation that makes it difficult to get funding for this kind of foundational research – even and in particular from certain foundations that ostensibly fund science on a national level.

Anyway, I'm happy that BELIV accepted this rather opinionated paper (it's a position paper, not research) and I'm looking forward to the discussion next Monday!

Robert Kosara, An Empire Built On Sand: Reexamining What We Think We Know About Visualization, Beyond Time And Errors: Novel Evaluation Methods For Visualization (BELIV), 2016

Posted by Robert Kosara on October 16, 2016. Filed under IEEEVIS, papers.