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Technical Writing: Show Me--Graphics in Technical Literacy

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Show Me--Graphics in Technical Literacy

Words! Words! Words!
I'm so sick of words.
I get words the whole day through;
First from him, now from you.
Is that all you blighters can do?
Sing me no song. Read me no rhyme.
Don't waste my time. Show me.
Eliza Dolittle, My Fair Lady

One use of technical literacy is to combat misinformation or
factual misperceptions. Such misperceptions turn up in personal
discussions, classroom debates, and of course in public-policy
arguments. To respond to misinformation with (technically
well-informed) WORDS is natural for any literate person.

But as Eliza Dolittle suggests above, a more persuasive response
might be to "show me" (that is, to present the factually sound
alternative in graphical form). Recently, a series of experiments
compared the relative power of text and graphics versions of the
same information to correct misperceptions about the (sometimes
emotional) topic of global warming. (See Dartmouth's Brendan
Nyhan and Georgia State's Jason Reifer, "Opening the Political
Mind," Sept. 2011, online at
opening-political-mind.pdf ).

To test the relative effectiveness of graphical displays on
factual misperceptions, Nyhan and Reifer developed a subject pool
that strongly agreed with the (counterfactual) statement that
"global temperatures have decreased" over the last six decades.
By using a within-subject design (checking attitudes of the
same subjects before and after "treatment"), they were able to
hold pre-existing beliefs constant. By constructing a text version
and a graphical version of the same NASA press release (details
below), they were able to "hold [the] source fixed when comparing
graphical and textual modes of presentation" (p. 26). Post-
treatment checks also confirmed "no significant difference in the
length of time respondents spent considering each treatment" nor
in their ability to recall what they had seen (p. 32, note 21).

Control subjects saw irrelevant material. "Text" subjects saw this
100-word paragraph (all extracted from the NASA press release at ):

Groups of scientists from several major institutions
--NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's
National Climate Data Center, the Japanese
Meteorological Agency, and the Met Office Hadley
Centre in the United Kingdom--tally data collected
by temperature monitoring stations spread around
the world. All four records show peaks and valleys
that vary in virtual sync with each other. They
each show an increase in average global surface
temperature of approximately 0.5 degrees Celsius
over the last three decades. Data from each source
also indicate that the last decade is the warmest
since 1940.

"Graph" subjects saw a line plot of temperature change in
degrees Celsius against time for 1940 through 2010 for the same
four sources mentioned in the text version (color coded, overlaid
on one axis, and very nearly identical). You and your students
can see this plot in color at the NASA URL listed above.

The results of this experiment were unambiguous: the "probability
that [strongly opinionated] respondents will say that average
global temperatures have deceased is much lower among those who
received Graph than among those who received Text or a control,"
(pp. 33, 44), specifically:
Among 172 subjects with strong opinions
against global warming,
the % who say that
"global temperatures have decreased"
Control group 37%
After text treatment 40%
After graph treatment 10%
(significant at the p<.01 level)

Nyhan and Reifer speculate that the Graph version of the NASA
information was so much more effective in correcting factual
misperceptions than the Text version because words invite stongly
opinionated people to counter-argue with more words of their own.
But graphs, with their inherently visual structure, "are more
difficult [for people] to counter-argue" (p. 35). They regard the
power of such "graphical corrections" as an "exciting possibility"
that could benefit many real-world communication professionals,
* "journalists writing stories about changes
in a measurable quantity" (p. 36),
* civic groups debating science-related
public policy, and of course,
* educators, especially in science classrooms.

Want more ideas for promoting such graphical literacy in science
class? Take a look at any of Edward Tufte's lucid and thoughtful
books, such as Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990).

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