First off, I’d like to apologize for saying the projects “suck,” That was just rude. Would I like it if somebody said that the examples in Bayesian Data Analysis “suck” because they’re not completely realistic, or if somebody said that the demos in Teaching Statistics “suck” because they’re not tied closely enough to the lecture material? A better thing for me to say would’ve been: “I don’t particularly like these as data displays, but I’m impressed by the effort that went into them, and I’m glad to see these sort of data-based displays getting a broad audience.”
In the interest of constructive discussion, I’d like to make a few points.
I would characterize all these graphs as visually attractive and data-related, so at the very least they can serve as inspiration to statisticians and other designers who are thinking about future data display challenges.
But . . . one of my big problems with labeling these as “best of the year” is that I don’t want them to be seen as completed data displays in and of themselves. I gave some detailed reasons for this attitude here, but briefly, I was, on the whole, unhappy with the graphics that you posted because I felt that they attracted attention to themselves more than they displayed the data.
To take a specific example-and recognizing that we may just disagree about what we find beautiful or interesting or helpful-I found the Baby Name Wizard to be far superior, as a tool for conveying information, than any of the examples linked to by Yao. If, for a moment, you accept this judgment, it leads to the surprising conclusion that the 5 best developments from 2008 were lower in quality than something that was done in 2005-which is a bit of a disappointment given the improvements in technology.
To get to some specifics:
- Wordle conveys a small but important amount of information (the most common words in a document and their relative frequencies) in what I see as a confusing way. Again, it it’s eye-catching, I can see that it is doing a service, is making the world a better place-after all, the alternative to people using Wordle is not, in general, people using something better, but rather people not using Wordle and thus not learning what the most common words (other than “the” etc, are in their documents). But I don’t have to like it!
- I dislike the Decision Tree because I dislike the model it is based on, and I think it leads people to a confused understanding of voting. Here, I think the world would be better if nobody were to see this graph. I’m not really complaining about the display, more about what it’s displaying.
To draw another analogy, I see pie charts as the high-tech, snazzy, attention-grabbing, beautiful graphical tool of the 1970s. It should be possible to argue both of the following:
(1) Pie charts are great–they’ve introduced millions of people to data, giving people a physical sense of numerical relationships.
(2) Pie charts are a dead end–elaborations on pie charts (3-d pie charts, exploding pie charts, and all the rest) make things worse, and they can stand in the way of more direct data displays.
For that matter, Excel’s graphics can be great. The problem occurs when people assume that the Excel output is enough. I think of all the research papers in economics where the authors must have spent dozens of hours trying all sorts of different model specifications, dozens of hours writing and rewriting the prose of the article, . . . and 15 minutes making the graphs. They just don’t realize that more can be done. And, from this perspective, Wordle and all the rest don’t really help. I guess what I’m saying is that there is still a place for traditional display tools such as line plots, and there’s a place for thinking seriously about the connection of these methods to the data and inferential problems at hand. It’s not all about making something that looks pretty and has data in it.
One could even make an analogy to literature. My taste in graphics is similar to George Orwell’s preferences in literature, for prose to be like a windowpane or whatever it was that he said. But two qualifications are needed here. First, it can take a lot of work to write clear prose, just as it can take a lot of work and a lot of practice to make clear graphs. Second, the pyrotechnic writing of a Martin Amis or T.S. Eliot can be fun in itself and also point the way forward: yesterday’s experiments can be tomorrow’s standards. Much of Ezra Pound is not so readable today but he had a big influence.
So let me re-emphasize that I am not, and was not, criticizing the general idea of snazzy graphics–after all, we link to Flowing Data on our blog. It was more that I had problems with the specific displays Nathan labeled as Best of the Year. Let’s praise the innovators who design wacky, eye-catching tools such as Wordle, but let’s also think about how to use these tools to give us a fuller understanding of the world around us, as is done by Hans Rosling and the Baby Name Wizard designers.
Wow–that was a lot! Perhaps I’ll elaborate (or simply repeat) some of these points in future blog entries.