Visualization and rhetoric redux

Organizational Chart of the House Democrats’ Health Plan

Organizational Chart of the House Democrats’ Health Plan

A chart depicting the health plan proposed by the House Democrats has recently come to the forefront of the media. It is hard to overlook the rhetorical bias of this visualization—with almost comical overstatement and unnecessary visual complexity it depicts the proposed heath care system through a flow chart consisting of an entangled mess of arbitrarily-colored nodes, positioned with seemingly little rationale. Designed by the office of Rep John Boehner, it makes its rhetorical intent abundantly clear to any conscious observer.

Undoubtedly due to the controversy surrounding the Obama Health Care Plan, the chart has been widely referenced, including by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post in When Health-Care Reform Stops Being Polite and Starts Making Charts, and recently by Infosthetics. Graphic designer Robert Palmer responded by creating a saner, more legible chart from the same source information. In a letter to Rep Boehner he writes: “By releasing your chart, instead of meaningfully educating the public, you willfully obfuscated an already complicated proposal.”

It is certainly not the first time that information design rhetoric has found its way into the political arena, as an earlier visualization of Nancy Pelosi’s Energy Tax from the same Representative’s office demonstrates. Edward Tufte devoted an entire chapter in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information to deceitful information graphics, writing: “For many people the first word that comes to mind when they think about statistical charts is ‘lie.’” True as this may be, those visualizations that appear unbiased and objective may ultimately be more deceitful, as they are accepted without scrutiny.

Rep John Boehner’s flow chart reminds of the inherent rhetorical quality of any visualization—a topic I wrote about earlier. Any chart, graph or dynamic data visualization has an agenda or conceptual model that it reflects, no matter how seemingly objective it is, and no matter whether the author of the piece is conscious of it. Therein lies its rhetoric, whether aimed at explanation or deception. Visualization is rhetorical because its objective is to communicate.

Visualization is a medium, as Eric Rodenbeck has said. And like other media, it contains a fundamental paradox: data visualization creates an expectation of objectivity, yet is inherently rhetorical. This paradox of perception is analogous to photography, which more directly depicts the eye and mind of the photographer, rather than an objective reality. Information visualization is part storytelling, part evidence, and for a visualization to be convincing both need to be considered together. Something the above Health Plan flow chart clearly fails to do.

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