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Technical Writing: Show Me--Graphics in Technical Literacy

Technical Writing: Show Me--Graphics in Technical Literacy

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. trgirill@acm.org 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 http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/ 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 http://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/news/20110113 ): 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, including * "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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