Graphs lack mass appeal?

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Andrew Gelman, Red State, Blue State sales are a factor of 2^100 lower than they should’ve been:

In his forthcoming book, Albert-László Barabási writes, “There is a theorem in publishing that each graph halves a book’s audience.” If only someone had told me this two years ago!

More seriously, this tongue-in-cheek theorem, if true, defines an upsetting paradox. As we discussed at the beginning of the Notes section of Red State, Blue State, we structured the book around graphs because that seemed to be the best way to communicate our findings. Tables are not a serious way of conveying numerical information on the scale that we’re interested in, and, sure, we could’ve done it all in words (even saying things like “We ran a regression and it was statistically significant”), but we felt that this would not fully involve readers in our reasoning. The paradox–or maybe it’s not such a paradox at all–is that graphs are grabby, they engage the reader, but this makes reading the book a slower, more intense, and more difficult endeavor.

I recall hearing about the lack of appeal of equations, and their negative impact on book sales, but not graphs. Then again, I remember that the author of Calculated Exuberance was a bit perplexed when I enthused about his chart & graph heavy posts.

Here’s a chart from from a paper in Current Biology, The Evolution of Human Genetic and Phenotypic Variation in Africa:

All that information in prose would take up more time, and be way less precise.

8 Comments

  1. True, a picture is worth a thousand words. But only if the picture is a good one. I’m a fan of Tufte on this business.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Tufte

  2. Awhile back I reviewed an old book about the cultural significance of music by Max Weber. The book was almost unreadable because it tried to present the formal aspects of harmony and intonation in verbal narrative form. Two or three charts or tables could have saved him several pages and would have been intelligible, which his presentation wasn’t.

  3. Off topic, but that set of papers in Current Biology (open access!) looks extremely interesting! For example, the paper on Europe seems to argue against the idea — which has been coming up a lot recently — that the original hunter/gatherer population of Europe was mostly replaced by Neolithic farmers from the Middle East. I don’t really have the time or the background to read all the papers carefully, so I’m looking forward to hearing from those who do.

  4. that paper and the pritchard et al. one are interesting. the others seem a little behind the times, focusing on uniparental lineages too much for my taste.

  5. This is the most fascinating type of graph:
    http://www.gapminder.org/

    The first impression is cutesy gizmo but once you play with it, the capabilities are endless and tons of information can be presented very compactly and efficiently.

  6. AWESOME find Razib, thanks a lot for this cell biology link. thank you thank you

  7. I recall hearing about the lack of appeal of equations, and their negative impact on book sales

    The first time I heard this one was in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time:

    The author notes that an editor warned him that for every equation in the book the readership would be halved, hence it includes only a single equation: E = mc2

    10 million copies were sold, so if they eliminated E=mc2 they could have sold 20 million!

  8. I’m skeptical of this chart-phobia myself. Witness the recent and rather wide ranging acceptance of website like graphjam.com.

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