On data beauty and communication style

There’s an interesting mini-drama going on in the data visualization world. The moderators of DataIsBeautiful invited Stephen Few for an ask-me-anything (AMA) session. Stephen Few is a data visualization researcher and an opinionated blogger. I use his book “Show Me the Numbers” when I teach data visualization. Both in his book and even more so, on his blog, Dr. Few is not afraid of criticizing practices that fail to meet his standards of quality. That is why I wasn’t surprised when I read Stephen Few’s public response to the AMA invitation:

I stridently object to the work of lazy, unskilled creators of meaningless, difficult to read, or misleading data displays. … Many data visualizations that are labeled “beautiful” are anything but. Instead, they pander to the base interests of those who seek superficial, effortless pleasure rather than understanding, which always involves effort.

This response triggered some backlash. Randal Olson (a prominent data scientists and a blogger, for example, called his response “petty”:

I have to respectfully disagree with Randy. Don’t get me wrong. Stephens Few’s response style is indeed harsh. However, I have to agree with him. Many (although not all) data visualization cases that I saw on DataIsBeatiful look like data visualization for the sake of data visualization. They are, basically, collections of lines and colors that demonstrate cool features of plotting libraries but do not provide any insight or tell any (data-based) story. From time to time, we see pieces of “data art,” in which the data plays a secondary role, and have nothing to do with “data visualization” where the data is the “king.” I don’t consider myself an artistic person, but I don’t appreciate the “art” part of most of the data art pieces I see.

So, I do understand Stephen Few’s criticism. What I don’t understand is why he decided to pass the opportunity to preach to the best target audience he can hope for. It seems to me that if you don’t like someone’s actions and they ask you for advice, you should be eager to give it to them. Certainly not attacking them. Hillel, an ancient Jewish scholar, said

He who is bashful can’t learn, and he who is harsh can’t teach

Although I don’t have a fraction of teaching experience that Dr. Few has, I’m sure he would’ve achieved better results had he chosen to accept that invitation.

Disclaimer: Stephen Few was very generous to allow me using the illustrations from his book in my teaching.

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