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.

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