The Truthful Art: Uncertainty and The Basics

Here’s the dirty little secret about data: it’s always noisy and uncertain.

Alberto Cairo, p. 112, The Truthful Art

Honestly, I never really gave uncertainty much critical thought until I stumbled upon Visualizing Uncertain Weather a 2017 article by Jen Christiansen in Scientific American (Who was mentioned in the article? Professor Cairo) where she talks about snowfall, Winter Storm Stella and moves into how hurricane visualizations are problematic.

Living in Syracuse, New York where tracking winter weather is like a part-time job, her article made me think about all the times forecasters would predict major snow madness and nothing much would happen. It’s like The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Sound the alarm enough with no need and people start to ignore the alarm. Heck, even the cashiers at the local grocery chain, Wegmans, make fun of people who, in their minds, overreact to winter warnings.

I’m one of the overreactors. If there is a storm on the way, I’m going to prepare. Blame my dad. “Always be prepared”, he advised. Plus, here’s the deal: weather shifts. It isn’t some linear condition. There are many variables.

So, now that I’m back in school, I’m thinking: why don’t weather apps do what the National Weather Service does for snow accumulation as Jen had pointed out? All I get are text reports which help to some degree but a visualization would be more effective.

Speaking of hurricanes, I confess I’m nervous about one landing while I’m in school. So, I decided that as soon as any hurricane is considered a Category 3 I’m out. Some apartment neighbors say you can hold it out in a Category 4. Given that most hurricane maps fail to show uncertainty and the scope of its impact, I’m not taking any chances. The traffic alone is a reason to start exiting as soon as possible.

I digress.

Reading more about uncertainty in The Truthful Art brought to mind another article by Jen in Scientific American that I came across through a tweet from Professor Cairo before I started his class: Visualizing Science: Illustration and Beyond It’s a lengthy article but one that I found fascinating as Jen took me on a journey through her experiences as an illustrator, infographer, art director, and I think, educator.

She ends with uncertainty and provides rich examples of how uncertainty has been expressed visually. Reading the entire article again, I’ve understand what she offers differently because I’ve learned more about visualization since my first read. It’s even more a keeper of an article and one I’ll continue to refer back to given the plethora of resources, tips and ideas she presents.

Examples of uncertainty from Visualizing Science: Illustration and Beyond

Being a beginner … again.

All of us who do creative work, like you know, we get into it and we get into it because we have good taste, but its like there’s a gap. That for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste, is still killer …

Ira Glass, Storytelling

I confessed in a previous post that I’ve always been scared of math. Over time, I’ve come to believe I’m not good at math nor good with numbers. But when I read Professor Cairo’s retelling of Professor Richard Thaler’s experiment with an exam, I laughed out loud.

Basically, Professor Thaler changed the maximum score of a test from 100 points to 137 points. When the exam was 100 pts, the average score was 72. When the exam was 137 pts, the average score was 96.

“Exams will have a total of 137 points rather than the usual 100. This scoring system has no effect on the grade you get in the course, but it seems to make you happier”

Richard Thaler, p. 122, para. 3, The Truthful Art

The visualization Professor Cairo presents shows the hilarity of the experiment.

Perhaps why I’ve come to love data visualization in just a few short weeks is because the good ones help me understand numbers, relationships and more importantly, the stories behind the numbers. Plus, I love information, organizing it, structuring it and even more, helping people understand it.

Of course, the frustrating aspect is that I’m still learning how to find data and then understand the raw information. My frustration is that I have so many questions and stories I want to tell but lack the skills at the moment to execute. I have to remember to be patient when it comes to all this “newness”.

“Encoding” is a new term for me; however, “mapping data into visual properties”, makes perfect sense. I still struggle with which type of visualization would be the most appropriate but what I enjoy most about learning visualization is that I’m learning a process; a structure or framework that gives what I create a strong foundation based in reasoning.

Don’t misunderstand. As a designer I learned early on with mentors and working with my colleagues to base my decisions on audience, metrics, goals, etc. But what I’ve learned so far through the Interactive Media program has essentially provided me with Super Glue. Glue that provides me with the terminology and methods to give cogency to design ideas or solutions. It’s a feeling of empowerment.

“Plot what you need to plot.” For some reason reading this allowed me to let out air. It is a version of sketching and iteration. You need to explore to see. This seems so apropos to why I’m back in school; a reminder for when I’m exhausted and wondering what I’ve done by taking myself out of the workforce for two years.

Learning is exploration. I’m iterating my designer Self. I’m exploring the “unknown unknowns” by starting with the basics.

The Truthful Art: Math, Science, The Mind — Oh My!

Literacy, Articulacy, Numeracy, and Graphicacy

Confession: I am one of those designers who is “terrified by math and science”. In fact, I’ll admit last week I had a bit of a math and science panic while trying to complete a weekly assignment. Still, I’m not sure it is without good reason. As well as I can remember, I loved science; biology in fact. If memory serves, I enjoyed math, too; geometry and algebra, I believe. I think I got as far as pre-calc but alas, didn’t do well.

Looking back I wonder: At some point in high school did math and science become boring or was it that people — teachers and fellow students — who insisted because I was Asian I had to be great at math and science? What was wrong with me? Or, was I so turned-off by the idea that I had to fit some stereotypical Asian mold that I avoided it at every opportunity? Both? Does it matter anymore? Not really.

What matters: my future with my husband and my family. Learning. Growing. Reinventing. Frankly, I don’t want to become beige. You know, boring, dull, dated, lacking flavor—stale, white sandwich bread. These are a couple of reasons why I uprooted from my comfortable and cozy life in Syracuse, New York to pursue an MFA in Interactive Media at the University of Miami. (Ok, and maybe get a break from the cold and grey for at least a year or two.)

But after reading, You Aren’t Qualified to be a Professional Journalist where Professor Cairo bluntly tells journalists, “If your level of numeracy is so abysmal, you aren’t qualified to be a professional journalist” and to “stop with the I’m-not-good-at-Math bullshit”, perhaps this is why I am here as well. This time and this class with Professor Cairo may just be my moment of facing my fears when it comes to numbers and science; my efforts to “[cultivate] the main skills of an educated person”—Literacy, Articulacy, Numeracy, and Graphicacy.

I thought I knew my knowledge gaps.

I became a student again specifically to learn how to code (again) and to learn UX research (I am learning this semester). Last semester, however, I learned about empirical research and experimental design through an intense Human-Computer Interaction course taught by Dr. Barbara Millet.

I was not prepared for independent variables, dependent variables, randomizing tasks, prototyping, collecting data, Likert scales, analyzing using SPSS and writing, writing, writing. For, as Dr. Millet frequently stated, “If you don’t write about it, it didn’t happen”. I believe that class to have been the most challenging academic learning experience of my life—so far. For experienced researchers, you may think I’m being dramatic. Please allow me the drama because that list and more is a first for this BFA-photography-student-turned-on-the-job-trained-designer. The more I learned, the more I didn’t know.

OK, I complained. I was exhausted. I thought I wouldn’t make it through the semester. But, I am thankful beyond measure for the academic rigor of Dr. Millet’s class. Because of her class:

  • I can apply what I learned to UX research methods — equally rigorous class.
  • I could understand the language, structure, and findings of the research presented at the Computation + Journalism Symposium.
  • Rightly so or not, I measure all research papers to Scott Mackenzie’s writing.
  • I can speak with researchers about their work and I hope, gain insight as to how their research could be applied to industry or potentially affect our daily lives.

“Science is a stance, a way to look at the world, that everybody and anybody, regardless of cultural origins or background can embrace”.

Alberto Cairo, The Truthful Art, Chapter, 4, p. 100

A couple of years ago I was faced with a decision to surgically remove a “small” chunk of my breast as a preventative measure for what, according to some research, could be a linear progression to breast cancer. I went into research mode; Googling anything and everything I could find about treatments, standard protocols, and alternatives. Why? Because I had loads of questions. There were contradictions everywhere but the primary drum beat was surgery.

from: Breast Cancer Awareness | Stages of Breast Cancer – Johnston Health.  There are no sources, no explanation in the article other than how to do a breast self-exam. This visualization is too simplified and potentially harmful.

I’m fortunate to have a relation whose research is in breast cancer at the University of California at San Francisco. Based on my conversations with him, I was pretty sure I did not have early indications of breast cancer. Yet two surgeons were insisting I do surgery. So, I felt comfort in the medical research that questioned existing research and the mainstream clinical practice. My mind caught all three bugs — patternicity, storytelling, and confirmation. I found everything that would support my position (wait and see) and make me feel better.

I’ll spare you the details of that crazy summer and autumn but eventually I agreed to do a test that would either confirm or refute what I believed to be true. I was scared. To my relief, my gut feeling was confirmed, but what if I didn’t do the test and the results were more serious? What if I had blindly done the surgery? People don’t talk about the chronic, often debilitating problems that can happen post-surgery.

One of my brothers is a doctor and Professor of Emergency Medicine. I asked him why my doctors wouldn’t talk to me about options and risk assessment for me; not the average woman; talk to me about uncertainty. He simply said that people don’t visit doctors for a discussion. People go to doctors for concrete, immediate solutions. Apparently I’m an exception (and to some a pain in the butt).

So my questions include: Why do many stories about health leave out the measures of uncertainty? Are we as a society so uncomfortable in the grey areas that we need a quick, easy-to-share headline that supports our preferences? Why do seasoned professionals blast research that question the norm?

This experience was just one in a series of personal experience that lead me back to design. What can I do as a designer? How can I improve my skills as a designer (and a person) to contribute to positive change on high-impact, “wicked” problems? 

You Aren’t Qualified to Be a Professional Designer

The answer to that last question requires circling back to the I’m-not-good-at-Math bullshit … perhaps the same could be said about designers: “If your level of numeracy is so abysmal, you aren’t qualified to be a professional [designer]”.

OK, no one wants to hear that. But I agree, the I’m-not-good-at -Math excuse for designers has got to go. So, say this out loud:

I am a designer and I will learn statistics, brush up on math, learn basic coding skills, and understand the underpinnings of controlled experiments because it will help keep me from becoming beige.

Hell, if Matt Waite, a professor at the University of Nebraska can do it (so inspiring), so can we. If you can take a class at your local college, make the time. If your schedule is so packed you feel like you don’t have time for an in-person class, Professor Cairo has complied a nice list of books to get you (and me) started. Find a learning partner. Keep each other accountable. It’s time to ditch the bad at math badge of honor and keep cultivating your skills.