Data, Patternicity, and Biases
Last Wednesday, Alberto Cairo gave a keynote presentation at the Tapestry conference. The day after (Thursday), he spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors meeting (CAR2014.) In both talks Alberto discussed some topics that are concerning him.
Mr. Cairo is considered by many (including me) to be one of the industry’s leading experts on infographics and a person I respect and view as a mentor.
Mr. Cairo’s keynote focused on the rise of activism and P.R. (he views them as expressions of the same phenomenon) in visualization and in communication in general. He discusses that he has nothing against people having opinions and agendas —is it possible not to have them? However, Alberto feels that some designers and journalists seem to be too willing to surrender to their biases rather than working hard to curb them.
He continues that these communicators usually argue that being transparent about their motives and goals is enough. Mr. Cairo argues that it is not. Writing about journalism, Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis have suggested that transparency is the new objectivity. Mr. Cairo disagrees. He states,
Transparency is necessary to gain credibility, but it’s not sufficient, and this is valid for non-journalistic infographics and visualization, too. The old notion of ‘objectivity’ in journalism was simplistic and unworkable, but that doesn’t mean that we should rush to drop the ideal outright.
Another area of concern that Mr. Cairo mentioned at CAR2014: Opinions that may lead you to cherry-pick data are not the main risk. Unconscious cognitive biases are even more dangerous. He discussed Michael Shermer’s patternicity. Mr. Cairo expressed concern that the more he learns about patternicity and cognitive biases, the more worried he becomes about our lack of understanding of them. He further points out that they are not explained in schools of design, as far as he knows. They certainly aren’t studied seriously and systematically in journalism schools. That, he states, is a huge issue.
Interesting Sound Bites from Alberto
- Conscious decisions are not the only risk. Cognitive biases and political ideals can lead us astray, as well. They are much more dangerous, in fact.
- When we are strongly ideologically or politically motivated, we are also more likely to find patterns in the data that confirm our preconceived ideas.
- We journalists like to say “trust your instincts!” Well, that’s very bad advice. PLEASE, DON’T. Don’t trust your instincts. Your instincts are a source like any other. And you should always try to double-check your sources.
New Book in 2015
Mr. Cairo will have a new book out near the end of 2015. It is tentatively titled “The Insightful Art.”
On the left, in the image below, is the cover of “The Functional Art,” which was published in 2012 and a book I highly recommend you read. The cover example on the right, shown below, is just one of the alternatives he is pondering for the new book.
New MOOC Course in 2015
Mr. Cairo is currently working on a completely new MOOC, co-taught with Scott Murray (photo right) Mr. Murray wrote the book Interactive Visualization for the Web. I have included an image of the cover of his book below. Alberto and Scott’s goal is to offer something at the beginning of 2015.
Stay tuned. I will provide more information about this course in a future blog post as I get more information.