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Beauty and imprecision in diagrams

I thought it would be appropriate to present the image that I er borrowed to create the masthead of this blog: a double page spread from the Penguin Book of the Natural World, 1976. This is a small but encyclopedic volume covering everything from cells to plants and animals to ecosystems. Several main sections such as those of the plant and animal kingdoms are illustrated with these really nice hand-drawn geometric diagrams.


A larger version

I want to draw attention to the paradox of 'bad information design' versus aesthetic beauty. I'm stricken by the illustrative quality, colour and form of this spread. My favourite part is the cluster of circles on the right, meant to illustrate the 'approximate size of different plant groups'. Of course, from an information design perspective, gaining precise knowledge from this is difficult; research has shown that comparing quantities by surface area such as these circles can be misleading (see for instance Macdonald-Ross 1979). It would be much easier for readers to grasp the real quantities involved with a bar graph, for example. A table of figures would be the most accurate, but also possibly the most off-putting form, unless the illustrator could make a table of figures look amazing. In this sense the less accurate diagram is more effective.

When we are talking about young readers who may or may not have any interest in the subject, maybe all of this doesn't matter, and holding the fickle reader's attention is most important. This opens up a whole can of worms about 'edutainment'. A utopian solution might be to train everyone in principles of good information design. But for now: how much educational value is there in science that has been so tarted up? And isn't some scientific value better than none at all?


As it happens, I'm just writing a bit of a chapter on "sugar coating" science with novel-like devices such as characters and short chapters.

I wanted to address the question of whether that is ok, because you do often get arguments along the lines of "it's terrible, we shouldn't sugar coat science".

But so far all my arguments for edu-tainment really boild down to "er, well why not". I don't really have enough sympathy/ understanding of the "don't dumb down" group to argue against them.

I guess there are ways in which you might worry if the content of science education is governed by factors more influenced by Disney than what is expected in science. If kids think science is all fun and games they'd be ill prepared for a job in it. There are also worries about misunderstandings - if someone tries to apply false science they might get into trouble. But to be honest I don’t think there are many contexts where misunderstandings of scientific fact really get people into that much trouble. You can live quite happily thinking the world is flat. In most contexts, if you get something wrong someone will argue with you to correct it. Society tends not to allow scientific information to be applied to contexts where it has much effect unless it's checked first.

Plus, I think even quite young audiences are good at telling the difference between what is there for fun and what they can learn off as applicable and useful to other contexts. I was interviewing a science book illustrator this weekend. He says he puts a lot of effort into getting pictures of insects scientifically correct, then he'll stick on a pair of cartoon bug-eyes. I think the kids know insects don’t have Mickey Mouse eyes, they laugh at them and then see through them to the science.

you've brought up so many different topics! in terms of sugar coating science, I agree with you about the 'why not', but the issue is complicated -- we should aim to dumb down, not misrepresent. ultimately everything is 'dumbed down' anyway, so its not so much an issue of providing all the information (which is completely unrealistic) but of what kind of info you present, and how you choose to present it.
its great to hear about this illustrator who learns proper anatomy then cartoonifies it. this seems like a great basic procedure: learn the real before you make it unreal. it probably assures a consistency in his visual syntax.
as for your last point -- is there really a difference between what is fun and what kids can learn from? isn't that a huge grey area -- not least because learning can be fun and if someone is interested in the topic they don't need the cartoon bug-eyes…

I think your "learning can be fun" point raises an important issue - different people enjoy different things. It would be silly to assume nobody likes science and everyone loves cartoon bug eyes.

On the dumbing down... its tricky. Honestly, I don't think non-fiction should disreguard scientific realism - it should try to communicate truthfully. (it's claims to truth being rather a large selling point) but I tend not to get too worked up about the odd bit of misrepresentation when it happens because I don't think the effects (on the most part) are that bad. Similarll

y, sometimes a bit of glossing-over or half-truth (or bug eyes) is necessary for a larger point to be made/ larger audiecne to be reached. Its a complex business, and within that compromises have to be made.

I'm still trying to figure out what I think of people walking around thinking the world is flat.

This is a conundrum; on the one hand, of course we should all be pursuing knowledge, at the very least be functionally literate, at best have a good science foundation in order not to fall into the traps of atavistic superstitions… (postmodern caveat: even though, who's to say whose science is 'right').

On the other hand, who cares if we don't all understand the ins and outs of, say, stem cell research (which we don't.) Wait... why shouldn't we?? i guess trying to inform children about science is good in the longer term -- so that people can be informed about current science-related issues, that is if we believe in some sort of active citizenship-type-of-thing.

Very interesting post and discussion! It goes right to the heart of some fundamental issues. So here's my twopence worth:

There is what I call a 'pedagogic assumption' in much discussion of science communication - especially with respect to images. We seem believe that the purpose of any science communication other than professional discourse in journals is education - why else, we ask ourselves, would one want to illustrate taxonomy?

There are many more reasons for illustrating scientific concepts than 'mere' education. If we were to judge every illustration that includes technical information by the same criteria we'd be poorer for it. Even in textbooks and journals the motivation for illustrating goes beyond the mere communication of data.

In short, what looks like 'sugaring the pill' if we adopt the pedagogic assumption may be nothing of the sort if we accept that there are other imperatives at work in science communication.

On the question of whether the world is flat: few people would claim that it is. On the other hand, ask anyone where space is and they'll almost always point up! Through my experience developing a 'Space Signpost' I've seen many people express shock when they discover that an object in space is beneath them (below the horizon). It illustrates that there are many different ways of 'knowing' scientific ideas - even ones as basic as whether the world is flat or round. Giving people precise and acurate data doesn't always help them to explore the different ways of knowing.