Monday, November 24, 2014

When infographics go wrong

Infographics have become very popular in recent decades, with the advent of computer graphics packages. Infographics combine data and pictures, trying to produce an aesthetically pleasing but still informative presentation of numeric information. Recently, the following book appeared:
The Infographic History of the World (2013)
by Valentina D’Efilippo & James Ball
HarperCollins (UK) / Firefly Books (US)

A selection of the the infographics can be perused at the senior author's web page:
At the blog the author also explains her intentions:
The Infographic History of the World is a new book that continues to push the field of infographics forward.
Our task required research, organization and the selection of topics. Then, we needed to decide how to display data in order to tell a coherent and compelling story. We have never considered this to be an alternative to tons of books of history, but hopefully a refreshing interpretation of what history is about.
With this book, we hope to lead readers on a journey, to interpret the data and find the implications that resonate with them. We don’t pretend that every set of data presents an unquestionable truth. And, rather than looking to define the world’s history, we were looking to present readers with an unconventional interpretation of the subject.
Sadly, these good intentions have not always been achieved. As noted by a review at Amazon:
the book showcases *clever* ways of displaying data, not *clear* ways of displaying it ... Far too often I had to pore over the graphic to figure out what it was trying to say.
What is worse for the readers of this blog, the information is not always correct. Consider this version of the Tree of Life, which has a long-standing tradition in systematics as one of the world's first examples of an infographic:

Click to enlarge.

Quite a number of the taxonomic labels are misplaced. You can check them for yourselves, but here is a selection of some of the surprising information contained in this infographic:
  • Amphibians are not Tetrapods
  • Humans are not Mammals
  • Mammals are not Amniotes
  • Turtles are not Reptiles
  • Lobe-finned fishes are not Sarcopterygians
  • Ray-finned fishes are not Bony Vertebrates
  • Charophytes are Land Plants
  • Hornworts are Vascular Plants
  • Ferns and Horsetails are not only Seed Plants they are Gymnosperms
  • Conifers, Gnetophytes, Gingko and Cycads are not Gymnosperms
 Clearly, little has been done to check the veracity of the information in this infographic, which completely defeats its purpose.

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