Conveying multiple realities in research and journalism

A recent Boston Globe editorial covers the issue of multiple, seemingly (if obviously) contradictory statements that come from complex research, in this case around the oil spill:

Last week, Woods Hole researchers reported a 22-mile-long underwater plume that they mapped out in the Gulf of Mexico in June — a finding indicating that much more oil may lie deep underwater and be degrading so slowly that it might affect the ecosystem for some time. Also last week, University of Georgia researchers estimated up to 80 percent of the spill may still be at large, with University of South Florida researchers finding poisoned plankton between 900 feet and 3,300 feet deep. This differed from the Aug. 4 proclamation by Administrator Jane Lubchenco of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that three-quarters of the oil was “completely gone’’ or dispersed and the remaining quarter was “degrading rapidly.’’

But then comes the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which this week said a previously unclassified species of microbes is wolfing down the oil with amazing speed. This means that all the scientists could be right, with massive plumes being decimated these past two months by an unexpected cleanup crew from the deep.

This is often the case for anything remotely complex: the opacity of the research process to the general public, the communication skills of various institutions, the differing perspective between what the public cares about (whose fault is it? how bad is it?) versus the interests of the researchers, and so on.

It’s a basic issue around communicating complex ideas, and therefore affects visualization too — it’s rare that there’s a single answer.


On a more subjective note, I don’t know if I agree with the premise of the editorial is that it’s on the government to sort out the mess for the public. It’s certainly a role of the government, though the sniping at the Obama administration makes the editorial writer sound one who is equally likely to bemoan government spending, size, etc. But I could write an equally (perhaps more) compelling editorial making the point that it’s actually the role of newspapers like the Globe to sort out newsworthy issues that concern the public. But sadly, the Globe, or at least the front page of boston.com, has been overly obsessed with more click-ready topics like the Craigslist killer (or any other rapist, murderer, or stomach-turning story involving children du jour) and playing “gotcha” with spending and taxes for universities and public officials. What a bunch of ghouls.

(Thanks to my mother-in-law for the article link.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 | government, news, reading, science  

No really, 3% of our GDP

Reader Eric Mika sent a link to the video of Obama’s speech that I mentioned a couple days ago. The speech was knocked from the headlines by news of Arlen Specter leaving the Republican party within just a few hours, so this is my chance to repeat the story again.

Specter’s defection is only relevant (if it’s relevant at all) until the next election cycle, so it’s frustrating to see something that could affect us for five to fifty years pre-empted by what talking heads are more comfortable bloviating about. It’s a reminder that with all the progress we’ve made on how quickly we can distribute news, and the increase in the number of outlets by which it’s available, the quality and thoughtfulness of the product has only been further undermined.

Update, a few hours later: it’s a battle of the readers! now Jamie Alessio passed along a high quality video of the the President’s speech from the White House channel on YouTube. Here’s the embedded version:

Monday, May 4, 2009 | government, news, science, speaky  

Not in our character to follow

obama rocks the academyObama’s goal for research and development is 3% of our GDP:

I believe it is not in our American character to follow – but to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the Space Race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science. This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.

I’m not much for patriotism rah-rah but it’s hard not to get fired up about this. I found the rest of his speech remarkable as well, listing specific technologies that emerged from basic research, too often overlooked:

The Apollo program itself produced technologies that have improved kidney dialysis and water purification systems; sensors to test for hazardous gasses; energy-saving building materials; and fire-resistant fabrics used by firefighters and soldiers.

And the announcement of a new agency along the lines of DARPA:

And today, I am also announcing that for the first time, we are funding an initiative – recommended by this organization – called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E.

This is based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, which was created during the Eisenhower administration in response to Sputnik. It has been charged throughout its history with conducting high-risk, high-reward research. The precursor to the internet, known as ARPANET, stealth technology, and the Global Positioning System all owe a debt to the work of DARPA.

The speech, nearly 5000 words in total (did our former President spill that many words for science during eight years in office?) continues with more policy regarding research, investment, and education–all very exciting to read. But perhaps my most favorite line of all, when he said to the members of the National Academy of Sciences in attendance:

And so today I want to challenge you to use your love and knowledge of science to spark the same sense of wonder and excitement in a new generation.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | government, science  


I’ve been working on ways to visualize the current world economic situation along with the bailouts, the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and so on, but South Park beat me to it.

Friday, March 27, 2009 | decisions, finance, government  

Statistics, Science, and Speeches


Our forty-fourth president:

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land – a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

For the politically-oriented math geek in me, his mention of statistics stood out: we now have a president who can actually bring himself to reference numbers and facts. I searched for other mentions of “statistics” in previous inaugural speeches and found just a single, though oddly relevant, quote from William Howard Taft in 1909:

The progress which the negro has made in the last fifty years, from slavery, when its statistics are reviewed, is marvelous, and it furnishes every reason to hope that in the next twenty-five years a still greater improvement in his condition as a productive member of society, on the farm, and in the shop, and in other occupations may come.

Progress indeed. (And what’s the term for that? A surprising coincidence? Irony? Is there a proper term for such a connection? Perhaps a thirteen letter German word along the lines of schadenfreude?)

And it’s such a relief to see the return of science:

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 | data, government, science  

Paternalism at the state level and the definition of “advice”

Following up on an earlier post, The New York Times jumps in with more about California (and New York before it) shutting down personal genomics companies, including this curious definition of advice:

“We think if you’re telling people you have increased risk of adverse health effects, that’s medical advice,” said Ann Willey, director of the office of laboratory policy and planning at the New York State Department of Health.

The dictionary confirmed my suspicion that advice refers to “guidance or recommendatios concerning prudent future action,” which doesn’t coincide with telling people they have increased risk for a disease. If they told you to take medication based on that risk, it would most certainly be advice. But as far as I know, the extent of the advice given by these companies is to consult a doctor for…advice.

As in the earlier post, the health department in California continues to sound nutty:

“We started this week by no longer tolerating direct-to-consumer genetic testing in California,” Karen L. Nickel, chief of laboratory field services for the state health department, said during a June 13 meeting of a state advisory committee on clinical laboratories.

We will not tolerate it! These tests are a scourge upon our society! The collapse of the housing loan market, high gas prices, and the “great trouble or suffering” brought on by this beast that preys on those with an excess of disposable income. Someone has to save these people who have $1000 to spare on self-curiosity! And the poor millionaires spending $350,000 to get their genome sequenced by Knome. Won’t someone think of the millionaires!?

I wish I still lived in California, because then I would know someone was watching out for me.

For the curious, the letters sent to the individual companies can be found here, sadly they aren’t any more insightful than the comments to the press. But speaking of scourge—the notices are all Microsoft Word files.

One interesting tidbit closing out the Times article:

Dr. Hudson [director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University] said it was “not surprising that the states are stepping in, in an effort to protect consumers, because there has been a total absence of federal leadership.” She said that if the federal government assured tests were valid, “paternalistic” state laws could be relaxed “to account for smart, savvy consumers” intent on playing a greater role in their own health care.

It’s not clear whether this person is just making a trivial dig at the federal government
or whether this is the root of the problem. In the previous paragraph she’s being flippant about “Genes R Us” so it might be just a swipe, but it’s an interesting point nonetheless.

Thursday, June 26, 2008 | genetics, government, privacy, science  

Visualizing Data Book CoverVisualizing Data is my book about computational information design. It covers the path from raw data to how we understand it, detailing how to begin with a set of numbers and produce images or software that lets you view and interact with information. Unlike nearly all books in this field, it is a hands-on guide intended for people who want to learn how to actually build a data visualization.

The text was published by O’Reilly in December 2007 and can be found at Amazon and elsewhere. Amazon also has an edition for the Kindle, for people who aren’t into the dead tree thing. (Proceeds from Amazon links found on this page are used to pay my web hosting bill.)

Examples for the book can be found here.

The book covers ideas found in my Ph.D. dissertation, which is basis for Chapter 1. The next chapter is an extremely brief introduction to Processing, which is used for the examples. Next is (chapter 3) is a simple mapping project to place data points on a map of the United States. Of course, the idea is not that lots of people want to visualize data for each of 50 states. Instead, it’s a jumping off point for learning how to lay out data spatially.

The chapters that follow cover six more projects, such as salary vs. performance (Chapter 5), zipdecode (Chapter 6), followed by more advanced topics dealing with trees, treemaps, hierarchies, and recursion (Chapter 7), plus graphs and networks (Chapter 8).

This site is used for follow-up code and writing about related topics.

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