Visualizing uncertainty

 Jun 4, 2018    by Elsita Kiekebusch

“Science is so, so visual!” – Neil McCoy

Many of us in the early-career phase have trained long and hard in the skills necessary to “do science”.  We’ve practiced experimental design, statistical analysis, and manuscript writing. But we haven’t been formally trained to communicate our science outside of our field to policy-makers, stakeholders or the public. Historically, graduate-level training in this area has not existed and public engagement by scientists has not been rewarded institutionally (see here and here). This dynamic is changing however, and science communication is emerging as its own discipline.

This past semester, I was lucky to participate in a new course focused on visual science communication. Taught by Neil McCoy, our department’s resident graphic designer and science communication officer, the class focused on the communication of science through the web and other visual formats. In this blog, I’ll try to impart some of the nuggets of wisdom that I learned from Neil including steps to take when developing a visual product, a few basic elements of design, and the dos and don’ts for presenting information. I’ll also discuss some specific tips with regard to communicating uncertainty in data and results.

Prior to developing your visual product, ask yourself a few questions:

First, why are you communicating your science? Primarily, you may want to transmit knowledge to others. Additionally, you might be trying to raise support for your research, foster excitement, correct misinformation, and/or recruit participants, among other reasons. In other words, what is the goal of your project?

Second, what is your story? It will help to identify and stick to a narrative that you wish to convey to your target audience. Who are the characters in the story? What is the take-home message?

Third, who is your audience? There are several things to consider with this question. Who are the people that will learn from your product? Are they members of the interested general public? Children? Policy-makers?

Next, consider the setting, what is your medium? Is it for a conference printed as a poster, displayed as a PowerPoint presentation, or will it be posted on the internet? This will greatly affect your organization, use of space and color palette.

Finally, what materials do you have? This could include photos, figures, text content, and logos. Be aware of the materials that you can make such as graphs, charts and the elements of design that you have at your disposal such as typography, and the materials that you can acquire such as maps, branding elements, and photos.

A note on photos: You can and should take your own photos, but you may also want to use others’ photos for the reasons of increased quality, specificity, and variety. Don’t forget to give credit to the creator (for example, “Photo by E. Kiekebusch” or “Modified from original photo by E. Kiekebusch”). Good places to find photos on the web include: Google Images, Flickr, and Creative Commons. Your institution and many federal agencies may also have libraries of photos (and logos) that can be used at no cost for official purposes (check the exact permissions).

Once you’ve identified your goal, narrative, audience and materials, it’s time to start your composition. Use these design principles to help you convey your message effectively:

  1. Emphasis: This enables you to focus your audience. This is a place within your visual product that draws the audience in and brings their attention to a focal point.
  2. Hierarchy: This is when an element of your visual product appears more important than other elements. This is created by the size, shape and placement of the content in your visual product. Think about where you want your audience to start reading and create movement to lead your audience through your narrative.
  3. Movement: Created by hierarchy, also repetition and patterns, this is the path of information, which draws the audience’s eyes along a trajectory. It also creates narrative.
  4. Balance: distribution of the objects, color, texture and space. Balancing these elements will make your product more visually appealing. This can be done through symmetry, harmony (for example, minimizing color contrasts), and repetition.

A note on figures: Don’t treat your figures as “1 size fits all”. A figure intended for publication in a peer-reviewed journal won’t necessarily look as good on a poster or a PowerPoint presentation. Adapt your figures to support the medium you are using by keeping in mind the scale (for example, poster size vs. publication guidelines) and the brightness (printed colors vs. projection screen.) Use pie charts to show parts of a whole (%) and use line graphs to visualize changes over time.

Dos and Don’ts:

  • Do focus on your story
  • Don’t drown your audience with too much information
  • Do avoid chart junk (visual elements that are unnecessary to understand the information represented on a chart or graph)
  • Do use automated lists (don’t create them manually)
  • Don’t fear white space - don’t box everything, maintain page margins and space around headings
  • Don’t use stretched/warped text, drop shadows, vertical type or anything else that makes it harder to read

Now that you have your draft, it’s time to refine it. Print out (or view on a large screen) your product before the presentation and take the time to see how it looks in reality. This will help you catch errors that you may not have been able to see on a tiny computer screen. For example, actual color contrasts and margin dimensions will be much easier to see on a print out. Ideally, ask a friend to take a second look as well, they may catch things you can’t see anymore because you are too close to the product.

For those working on climate-related issues, we are challenged with how best to communicate and visualize uncertainty in our data, which can arise from a variety of areas including human error, lack of full understanding of the physical processes needed to parameterize climate models, the level of resolution in our data sets, and chaos inherent in our study systems. This challenge further increases when we want to communicate our results to others not in the field, and especially to skeptical audiences. My advice is to acknowledge the uncertainty, and not shy away from it. In particular, do not mislead your audience. Here is a figure that shows different ways in which data were represented, leading to strikingly different visual results

As scientists we have the power to tell compelling stories, but we must be careful to remain true to what our results actually indicate. Some science communicators disagree about the use of error bars and confidence intervals in figures for a public audience. I personally think these can be very useful, especially if you get the chance to explain their meaning within a context of teaching greater understanding of what uncertainty is. Explaining uncertainty to your audience could also serve to promote the importance of the scientific process in attempting to eliminate the unknowns.


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Photo: Elsita Kiekebusch