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Popular Science: How important is Visualisation in Science?

In late June, the Second Interdisciplinary Colloquium took place at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. This year it was aimed at the phenomena of maps and graphs – which concerns any type of scientific work.

The event starts with the Eliška Fulínová’s paper, focusing on the topic of “Anthropocene”: maps and diagrams with steeply rising lines are widely used for a description of the current global situation, from mineral quarries to social phenomena. Graphic visualisations of this type involve an ethical appeal rather than exact information. They are intended to move the reader towards environmental protection.  Furthermore, diagrams showing incommensurable values, often devalue information presented in this way. In the process of diagram construction, it is possible to do various “tricks”: this is the reason why a trivial message may seem to be of high importance and, on the contrary, some important information could easily be downplayed. A striking example is the ‘hockey diagram’ of global climate changes, disputed by scientists and politicians, including the Czech ex-President. Every scientist and reader of scientific texts should be aware of these problems, occurring in diagram construction.

Entomologist Karel Chobot showed many examples of the misinterpretation of plotting ranges of species distributions in maps. In recent decades, this kind of visualisation has undergone a turbulent development, from handmade dotting in maps to up-to-date applications using GPS coordinates. Anyhow, even the best and most detailed map fails to be a perfect image of nature. It is and can be merely an interpretation, including many various distortions. As an example he mentioned the well-known quadrate mapping, which is always highly influenced with our choice of quadrates, weather, the experience of the person, etc.

It was followed by the contribution from Roman Figura on maps describing the range of bird species. Birds are living beings that move fast and attempts to determine the ranges are often sadly dissatisfactory. In addition, standard mapping techniques are not very successful in describing such occurrences such as, for example, sudden bird invasions in uncommon areas or the spread of an entirely new species. The over focus of ornithologists on mapping and the number of species may result in neglecting surveys of other issues of birds and their lives.

Jan Bláha demonstrated how far the contemporary method of landscape description and visualisation differs to the way of description and visualisation in other cultures. He used the native inhabitants of New Guinea, who describe landscape in a very different way from an precise up-to-date map with a certain scale.

Young geologist and painter Adam Kašpar, already famous for a number of successful art exhibitions, explained his precise work method, based on scientific insight. It is this combination that enables him to make monumental paintings of rocks and stones. It is an example of science and art working in harmony, which contributes to the enrichment of our minds.

The second block of the colloquium was dedicated to reflections on visualisation techniques from different views. The paper from Tomáš Kolich presented the use of the method of net visualisation in Humanities and how diagrams start to live their “own lives” and pervade in art. – Lukáš Pilka came with a contribution on the current topic of the mechanical recognition of images. Science is not the only sphere of interest in this issue: modern security programmes are able to recognize and identify the human face, which leads to far-reaching ethical and security implications. Anna Kvíčalová presented a fascinating field: the visualisation of sounds and sound studies. In a science that usually prefers exact visualisations, such an approach is often neglected. The closing paper by Jindřich Brejcha was about the scientific seizing of animal colouration. Ever since at least J. W. Goethe, there have been issues on the table that still have not been fully comprehended even up to our day and age. We know that colours play a key role in communication among animals, though the issue of their perception and quantification has not yet been definitely resolved.

In spite of the high diversity of papers, one important message was often heard at the colloquium. Data visualisation can never be an exact “copy” of nature. The creation and reading of diagrams are the work of an interpretative kind that may be just as useful as it can be misleading. That is why visual literacy should be one of the key competences of any research worker and well as an erudite reader.


Roman Figura

Published: Oct 02, 2019 03:30 PM

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