27 January 2022

Link roundup for January 2022

I have seen a lot of repurposing of fabric posters, but this one is surely the cutest:


Baby sleeping on conference poster made of fabric

Ferran Nadal-Bufi writes:

Award winning poster on peptide-based drugs to target cancer becomes play mat for tummy time 🥰

Hat tip to Needhi Bhalla.

• • • • •

In my field of neuroscience, it’s been known for some time that images of brains “lighting up” are more persuasive that tables or graphs. So a new preprint that suggests graph aesthetics influence their persuasiveness is not especially surprising.

Lin C, Thornton MA. 2022. Fooled by beautiful data: Visualization aesthetics bias trust in science, news, and social media. https://psyarxiv.com/dnr9s/

The authors say the graphs on the left were considered least beautiful, and the ones on the right were most beautiful.

Collage of eight graphs, with the ones on the left rated as more beautiful than those on the right.

A Twitter thread 🧵 from one of the authors is here.

I suspect a lot of people will flip out about this, because academics have been made very twitchy about misinformation. Any many cling to the idea that a graph should somehow be a completely neutral and impartial conveyor of data.

But graphs have always been a tool for persuasion. 

So the lesson here is not only,  “Be suspicious of beautiful graphs,” because really, you should be suspicious of any graph, but also, “It is worth the time and effort to make a nice graph, because it will spread your ideas farther. And as Seth Godin says, ‘Ideas that spread, win’.”

• • • • •

Last year, one of the big things that happened to me was getting my right eye fixed up. I’d had low vision for a few years, thanks to an undiagnosed cataract. I’m glad to be rid of it and now have the best vision I’ve had since I was a kid. But I am also greatful for the experience because it made me more alert to problems face by people with visual impairments that can't be fixed with a simple surgery.

On that note, I’m currently trying to lay my hands on a copy of:

Wu Y-H, Martiniello N, Swenor BK. Building a more accessible conference for researchers with vision impairment. JAMA Ophthalmology. In press. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2021.5613

If anyone has a copy, please email me! It seems relevant to my interests.

• • • • •

“How to present a poster at a conference?” is a short chapter (Chapter 3) in the book, How to Practice Academic Medicine and Publish from Developing Countries? A Practical Guide. (The authors chose to have a stylistic thing where not only the book title, but the chapters, and every heading ends in a question mark, whether it needs it or not.)

Open access and free to read.

Nundy S, Kakar A, Bhutta ZA. 2022. How to Practice Academic Medicine and Publish from Developing Countries? A Practical Guide. Singapore, Springer Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-16-5248-6_37

• • • • •

Helena Jambor reviews trends in data visualization for 2021. Topics include:

  • The ubiquity of the “viridis” colour scheme
  • Axis breaks
  • Slope charts
  • Pictograms
  • Scale bars

And more!


07 January 2022

The New York Times COVID-19 serpent

 Opinion is split on this New York Times graph:

CVOID-19 cases plotting by width of line in a spiral, with month the points on the radius.

This spiral is showing the same thing as this:

Line graph of VOIC-19 cases

A lot of people were dunking on the circular top graph. Zach Freed, who wrote, “Literally no reason to make this graph into a spiral.”

But several data viz folks perked up to defend it (here, here, here, here, here, here). (I’m not pasting in the quotes because I want to finish this post.)

And there are already remixes floating around. Amerlia Wattenberger has several.

I am more on the “detractor” side than “supporter” side. To me, this looks a lot like being different just for the sake of being different. And I don’t like that distance from center seems to be purely arbitrary.

Now, there are arguments that maybe being different is a good thing here. Neil Richards wrote, “(I)f it gets us talking about it, the chart's doing a great job!”

Yeah, but we’re talking about the graph and not the data or the ideas in the article.

It’s like when CERN announced the confirmation of the Higgs boson on slides using Comic Sans. Suddenly, people were talking about the typeface and not the data or the significance of the discovery.

The big potential advantage of a circular graph is that it is the best way to show circular data. If the big point of the graph was to explore whether COVID-19 was seasonal, yes, then this would start to make a lot more sense.

But that’s not what the article is about. Besides, even if the point was, “COVID-19 sure looks seasonal, peaking in December,” that’s n = 2 in any case.

I think Alyssa Fowers’s point that this is at the top of an op-ed article is relevant. I don’t think this is meant to show data; I think this is intended as an illustration that is based on data. I am willing to be the phrase 

“Spiralling out of control”

was uttered at some point in a story meeting. And that was the driving force leading to this graph.

Regardless of whether this plays in the “paper of record,” where people are expected to be able to spend all the time they want poring over it while sipping a hot beverage, I absolutely would not recommend this kind of graph on a conference poster.*

One of the main reasons we standardize graphs is that you don’t have to re-learn and decipher graphs anew every time. In a poster session setting, where people are busy and distracted, it’s a little rude to foist a non-standard graph on your audience if another type of graph is a much more common way of showing the data.

* Unless you were trying to show seasonality. And if you were trying to show seasonality, I would explictly annotate that on the graph.

Update, 8 January 2022: This makeover from Joe Travers is closer to what I might do. I would want some way to put the two years on the same scale, though.

Circular graph of COVID-19 cases from 2020 and 2021.

Another update, 8 January 2022: I should be writing a syllabus, not remixing graphs. Yet here I am.

CIrcular plot of new COVID-19 cases in Canada.

This is a quick and dirty proof of concept. Yes, I know the months are sloppily positioned. Yes, I know there are other things that need fixing. But I was too curious what a circular plot looked like.

Dates are a pain to work with. Spreadsheets and graphing software really, really, really want your dates to include a year and add one if you don’t. Not to mention leap years, like 2020 was.

The spiral graph was by Gus Wezerek and Sara Chodosh, though it's not clear if one or both were responsible for this particular graph.

External links

Here’s When We Expect Omicron to Peak

06 January 2022

Critique: Particulate matters

Alexandra Lai is a repeat customer of the blog. She was kind enough to share her work some time ago. She wrote, “I appreciated your critique so I am coming back for more!”

Well, when someone asks, I have to give it. Click to enlarge!

Poster titled, "From personal exposures to cell exposures Cytotoxicity and chemical composition of women’s personal PM2.5 exposures in rural China"

When I open a poster for review, there’s always that first reaction. Sometimes, it’s an overall impression that makes me go “Ooooh...” it I like it or that sound of sucking air through my teeth if I don’t. But sometimes, it’s one thing that you spot right away and you cant let go of.

It’s down in the lower right.

Headings do not just convey information about sections. They help divide a work into chunks, carving the poster at its joints. Here’s the poster with the headings at the top of each section.

While I personally have written about how I dislike changing column widths, I have very little confusion about what the sections are or what order to read the poster.

But in the lower left corner, the short heading accidentally isolates the last column,

We assume that everything under a heading  belongs to that heading. So anything that is not under a heading doesn’t feel like it belongs to anything.

Think of a heading like an umbrella.

Shadow of person holding an umbrella with the edge of the umbrella over the head, leaving on side of the body not under the umbrella.

Doesn’t just looking at that umbrella just make you want to reach in and pull it over the body? Like this?

Shadow of person holding an umbrella with the handle of the umbrella near the body, covering the body under the umbrella.

There are a few minor typographic issues that might be addressed. I strongly suspect that typesetters would not want a line to begin with a dash

– which happens in the first heading.

Similarly, I don’t think it’s common for ellipses to end one line or section…

… And use ellipses again to start the next line or section, which happens in the rightmost headings and in the text. Text lines should start with words, not symbols. 

These sorts of decisions are why professional book typesetting, even now, is at least checked by professional typesetter and not isn’t automated like Word documents. Placing line breaks and hyphens are not easily encapsulated in algorithms.

The rest of the poster has a consistent use of contrast colours, blues and oranges, that help add visual interest.

I thank Alexandra for sharing her work again, and wouldn’t mind seeing a third sometime!

Related posts

30 December 2021

Link round-up for December 2021

Antonia Hadjimichael has a blog post, “Five tips for creating visually appealing scientific posters.” It contains some material familiar to readers of the blog. It is always great to see ideas spread!

• • • • • 

The question of whether there can be rules to design, including data visualizations, is a vexed one. This thoughtful blog post suggests that there are come helpful steps you can use to help land on a good graph.

I think that many common dataviz design decisions can be codified as formal rules that can be followed by practitioners of any experience level to make the best possible design choice in any situation, without exception. The bad news is that these rules can’t be captured in simple “always/never” sentences... . The good news is that many of them can be captured in relatively simple decision trees.

• • • • • 

Matt Elliot anticipates and solves problems before anyone anyone can make something of it.

Best. Graph. Subtitle. Ever.

Line graph whose subtitle reads, "Please note that the Y axis does not start at zero. Don't hassle me about it. I think a non-zero axis is okay here."

Hat tip to Michael Hoffman

• • • • •

Nuria Melisa Morales García has a Twitter thread about graphical abstracts. Much of which applies to posters.

09 December 2021

Posters should not be rated like Yelp reviews

WHhn I was on the PolicyViz podcast, there was one joke I left on the floor that I wish I'd told. When Jon asked me about poster competitions, I should have said, “I know: academia isn’t competetive enough. Let’s organize the backstabbing.” Molly Gordon describes her experience at an ASCB conference:

When someone rates my poster 1 ⭐️ at the American Society of Cell Biology... my thesis work, that I pushed forward through a pandemic, poured my heart and soul into, and did my absolute best to summarize into a 5 minute video.

Also, it is not unnoticed that my labmate got a single ⭐️ as well. Someone is actually out there targeting research from certain labs with bad reviews? Geeeeeeez science feels hopeless at times.

If you thought my research and or presentation style was that abysmal, why not offer advice or critique in addition to your rating? Thanks for making the field a more inclusive space ❤️/sarcasm /rant.

I have no idea what is going on here. Neither the meeting’s poster information page nor information for presenters say anything about this rating system. Molly confirms that the ratings are anonymous.

ASCB replied that this is part of the meeting platform and they cannot turn it off. So... maybe a good reason not to use that platform? The person in charge of their Twitter account wrote:

Hopefully we won’t have to organize a virtual meeting on this scale again. It takes all year and 1,000s of hours of planning and team work. It just goes to show you, it’s always something.

I know that the person running a social media account is not the entire leadership of the organization, but this response is a too low key for my taste. If this kind of behaviour took place in a face-to face environment, it might violate a code of conduct.

The ASCB Twitter account also took a moment to complement Molly but not apologize.

Update: ASCB says most one star ratings were  “accidental.” The society does have a code of conduct. It was just hard to find, because it was under “Meeting policies and terms.”

Aside: The ASCB poster template is pretty shocking.

No alignment, switching reading order, and more.

04 December 2021


The Better Posters book is on sale from Pelagic Publishing until December 5! Use the code CHRISTMAS30 at checkout to get 30% off.

Strictly speaking, it’s all Pelagic titles that are on sale, so check out their many fine books.

02 December 2021

The strange case of a “Martian insects” poster

Last week, I wrote about why posters should be reviewed a little more stringently than they usually are. I put out a call on Twitter for posters that people thought should have been nipped in the bud by conference organizers. 

William Romoser
And so it was that I learned of the curious case of a 2019 Ecological Society of America poster, presented by one William S. Romoser.

William Romoser died earlier this year. He was an emeritus professor of Ohio University, where he had a 45 year research career until he retired in 2010. Besides a healthy number of technical articles (many on mosquitoes), he published a major textbook on entomology that went through four editions.

Cover of "Science of Entomology" book

I say all this because I want to stress that Romoser was the real deal. He was no crank. He has earned respect.

Yet he presented the poster below, apparently in all seriousness.

The abstract reads, in part:

To my knowledge... this is the first professional report of direct evidence of identifiable life forms beyond the confines of Earth.

You read that right. Romoser claimed to have found alien life. He claimed there were many insects and reptiles on Mars.

If this were the case, you expect you might have heard about it by now. You haven’t, so... let’s just say that Romoser did not make a compelling case. 

Indeed, the idea that the discover of alien life would be announced on a poster at an ecology meeting rather than with an international press conference and coverage in Nature and Science feels absurd on the face of it.

Here is the poster.

Now, since this is a poster blog that normally focuses on design rather than content, It is frustrating that someone who had been in the game for as long as Romoser was making easily fixed mistakes.

The text is inexcusably tiny throughout. And there is a lot of it.

But back to the content. This poster appears to be a case of a common psychological phenomenon, pareidolia. It’s just ramped up to an extreme.

pareidolia (par·​ei·​do·​lia), noun: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.

Romoser is far from the first person to fall prey to pareidolia and similar over interpretations. Percival Lowell thought he saw canals on Mars, and believed they were evidence of a vast Martian civilization.

Japanese physician Chonosuke Okamura claimed to have discovered microfossils of miniature humans and other species. He was posthumously awarded an IgNobel prize for this work. 

And many amateurs have claimed to see a face on Mars in blurry NASA photographs. 

I completely missed this story at the time. perhaps because Romoser put a “No tweeting” icon on the poster, there seems to be not chatter about it under the #esa2019 hashtag. Romoser’s request to keep the poster off social media was ineffective, given that Ohio University initially put out a press release about Romoser’s poster. It was soon removed. According to the university, Romoser did not wish to interact with media.

Several people in the Twitter thread suggested that at the time this poster was presented, Remoser was experiencing some mental health issues. That is not for me to say. Regardless of why he believed that these blurry photographs were evidence of insects and snakes, it’s unfortunate that he spent so much effort on a dead end line of inquiry.

I have to agree that this is a poster that the conference organizers should have rejected. I don’t think its presentation at the meeting did anyone any favours, including Romoser.

External links

Does Insect/Arthropod Biodiversity Extend Beyond Earth?

Much ado on Mars, maybe

William Romoser obituary

Science of entolomogy

Mars and Earth - Partners in time? (Facebook page)

University Deletes Press Release Claiming Evidence of Bugs on Mars

It's Still Not Aliens: 'Mars Bug' Claim Could Damage the Search for Life