22 July 2006

Gapminder

One of the problems that prompted me to become "seriously" interested in photography was the difficulty of depicting aggregate phenomena (war, famine, migration, economic growth, and so forth). Typically this is a problem of conveying quantitative intformation. Since many people are ill-equipped (not innately, but due to lack of trainng) to grasp the mathematics and statisitics behind such information, figuring out how to communicate it in accessible ways is an especially pressing problem for democrats, committed as they are to the rule of citizens. So, for instance, in The Public & Its Problems Dewey is preoccupied with the need to integrate social and political inquiry into democratic debate. He rightly (I think) inisists that this is as much a task for art as science. But he says very little about how we might approach the (admittedly daunting) problem he identifies.

One obvious place to start when thinking about such matters is the analyses of Edward Tufte - a political scientist whose work, while incredibly provocative, has unfortunately had scant impact on the social sciences. Here are the final lines of his first book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information: "What is to be sought in designs for the display of information is the clear portrayal of complexity. Not the complication of the simple; rather the task of the designer is to give visual accesss to the subtle and the difficult - that is, the revelation of the complex." This observation, of course, makes direct contact with Dewey, who thought the primary problem of the public is that it has difficulty "finding" itself in the complex welter of demographic, technological, economic, etc. changes characteristic of the contemporary world. Tufte's work might well provide some of the tools needed by a Deweyian view of democracy.

I am teaching a feshman seminar this coming fall that will try to make the connection I just sketched more explicit. An anonymous commenter just brought to my attention a web site Gapminder.org that I suspect will prove quite useful for my students (and me too!). I have only just begun to poke around on the site but it looks quite cool (Thanks!). Here is a one sentence description of the organization lifted from their page: "Gapminder is a non-profit venture for development and provision of free software that visualise human development. This is done in collaboration with universities, UN organisations, public agencies and non-governmental organisations. " The focus of the organization seems to be on development issues. The notion that we need to appreciate the difficulties of visualizing these matters is brought home when contemporary pragmatists like Richard Rorty, the heirs of Dewey, complain that the populations of the developing world and their problems "are becoming increasingly unthinkable." If we think with works of art (as Rorty would acknowledge) we can and surely should be thinking about the artistic presentation of statistical information of just the sort that Gapminder.org seems to offer.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

To put the public's numeracy problem into perspective, let us examine the current Middle Eastern crisis, and the hysteria that spawned over the casualties in Iraq and Lebanon.

If you recall, when the number of casualties in Iraq approached 2000, the media executed a storm of criticism. They considered these numbers to be "staggering" and disasterous. One would think that the loss of 2000 soldiers is a number so significant it poses a credible threat to the survival and existence of the American population itself.

If we created a quantitative visual graph detailing the casualties of the last 10 wars in the history of the United States, we will find that much of the hysteria over the loss of American soldiers in Iraq, in the span of 3 years, and the 300 casualties in Lebanon, over the past 2 weeks, is simply a passionate, and irrational overreaction.

In WWii, America lost almost a half a million men and women. In the Civil War, America lost close to 700,000 people. In the Korean and Vietnamese wars, we lost over 100,000 soldiers. Imagine this on a visual graph, representing casualties of war. Picture Lebanon's 300 dead next to the Civil War's 700,000. The bar on the graph would be so small, it would be hard to even see it.

People have a habit to yell and shout empty slogans of "genocide" and "massacre" against the US and Israeli governments, without putting conflicts, and numeracy, into their proper context and perspective. I hope books such as this one will help!

Thanks for the nice blog.

22 July, 2006 23:08  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the comment. Numbers are important but they are not the only important thing. So too are our concepts regarding, say, who is a justified target in a war, whwen aggression is justified and so forth. So, while I believe it is crucial to avoid screaming genocide or massacre when it is inappropriate, it DOES make a difference if the people dying in a conflict are civilians or combatants. One of the consequences of BushCo policies (and in very different ways, by the way, of groups like Hezbollah or al Queada as well) is preccisely that they are intentionally dessignedd to degrade such conceptual distinctions and thereby make everyone a fair target. So the numbers count and may in some instances overwhelm, but our political judgements are not merely quantitative.

23 July, 2006 08:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am glad you like the gapminder site. I think it is great in that it makes statistical data fun and interesting. The dynamic effects the data tools highlight are very effective at illustrating different development paths and surprising contrasts. The video linked from the site of the creators demonstrating gapminder does a great job of demonstrating its potential. That said - one thing that gapminder cannot do is tell the viewer why the development paths diverge so much - the site raises numerous questions but does not, nor does it seek to, provide answers in a causal way - for a seekiing spirit that can be both exciting and frustrating. Understanding why things happen is perhaps the ultimate goal. Although in order to know that we have to know what is happening and gapminder is great at illustrating that. Perhaps the overall success of the project though will be ulttimately judged by how much interest and investigative projects it inspires.

24 July, 2006 09:13  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I meant to reply to your comment this morning but the system was not working. I think you are just right abaout the limitaitons and usefulness of the site. What you say is true too not just of this site but of quantitative and statistical representations more generally. I start today teaching at a summer institute that aims to impart quantitative techniques to graduate students. Mostly the classes (mine excepted) spend their time on establishing technical proficiency without worrying too much about matters of causality and explanation. But the institute is in a nice location and this year I have a great house with a porch where I can sit and eat mango and line juice pops while I write blog entries.

24 July, 2006 16:10  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sounds like you will be having fun while contemplating issues of causality and explanation perhaps you will find some answers to pressing questions - I look forward to intersting blog entries - hope you have good weather and good company.

24 July, 2006 18:45  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Well, pressing questions of causality and explanation are pretty difficult matters to think through. And it seems a slow day photograpahy-wise. So I have been sitting on the porch, the peaceful evening undisturbed except for occasional passing cars and the voices of folks out walking, reading a newish Walter Mosley mystery - "Cinnamon Kiss" - while trying to keep the plum I'm eating from dripping on the pages. Multi-tasking is hard to do.

24 July, 2006 21:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That one posting is just crap:

"If we created a quantitative visual graph detailing the casualties of the last 10 wars in the history of the United States, we will find that much of the hysteria over the loss of American soldiers in Iraq, in the span of 3 years, and the 300 casualties in Lebanon, over the past 2 weeks, is simply a passionate, and irrational overreaction."

Give me a break, the words give you away, with your redundant "hysteria"..."irrational overreaction"... Sure, sure..

Where to begin: you use those words, hysteria, passionate, irrational without mentioning Israel and American policy in that same mideast...haha. Next time try to cover your hand a bit more before playing it. The reaction is to the COMBINATION OF FACTORS - and that is why charts are NOT ENOUGH. We knew bodycounts were not enough back in Vietnamn already, where were you in that lesson? It is the USA POLICY and its ongoing lack of concern for our lives, and anyone elses except for a few "chosen people" who read the old testament, in the white house and in a country or two outside.

You compare apples and oranges to avoid simply looking at the real issues in this lack of a policy that is causing not only sodliers deaths, but hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq, not to mention ongoing Palestinian civilian deaths and so on - oh wait, you don't seem to care, as your "rationality" is in "deathcount" only, as if that were ever the point of war, and the only problem.

Major World Wars huh?. That is an old U.S./ Vietnam ploy - you recall, its actually the MEDIA fault, no one was against the war and the policy was "good" but then they saw deaths on tv and that magnified the emotional content to be more important than the huge numbers. Sure, sure - it was the MEDIA...sure. And since World War II was a huge number, we should all just suck it up, be quiet and let death and carnage continue until... what? we reach that number? For some loser president who has no virtuous policy, mandate nor idea of the word virtue?

So..only Iraq and Lebanon and American soldiers rather "small" number...are making us overreact for no reason.

America media and the policy it represents, since decades, trained everyone to use your wording in order to cower people who may complain when it comes to anything that happens to Israel where NO deaths are involved on the Israeli side, and Palestinian civilians are killed weekly since the 80s. Those who complain are "sympathizers" wtih what else... "blah blah terrorists".
We accept the wording of "militants" killed without even checking facts, if the government tells us this, it must be. We look later if we want at Amnesty records and find it is different - but what the hell, its just bodycounts anyway right?

Your pseudo-rational, choice of words, the language you couldnt even manage to contain yourself from repeating in a few paragraphs, is the reason infographics and charts should exist with texts alongside - but in order to avoid YOU, your tone, your so-called ability to see above human deaths and see "reality"...uh huh,.. hysteria over just 300 to 18...ratio of civilian deaths, by a countrys weapons (US) who has no idea even what is the country, what is their civilian population, nor the overall geopolitics.

Sure, it is hysteria. I saw no mass crowds on the street, chanting about any white house revolution, or anything near hysteria, as I do whenever Israel is mentioned in any way as POSSIBLY culpable in any act at all, and see their spokespeople coming on fox and cnn to do spin.

Let me guess, next thing you will note, there are "worthy" and "unworthy" civilian deaths...right?

25 July, 2006 23:20  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art: your hysterical response proves my point precisely. Thank you. ;)

26 July, 2006 12:18  
Blogger bjorke said...

The last couple of responses make vividly clear an important point when applying information to issues of public policy -- while effectively communicating quantitative information and issues of scale and complexity are difficult tasks, even the most brilliant use of shape and animation and color can't correct for the presence of other people who will find ways to conveniently and sometimes irrationally reduce complex issues to forms that are simple, elegant, clear-cut, and thus immensely appealing. The fact that these reductions are completely wrong and the cause of subsequent misery doesn't apparently reduce their appeal, especially among those who prefer their politicians to say "here's the simple answer" rather than "we're considering this complex question."

27 August, 2006 17:18  

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