Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pictures may be worth 1000 words, but, sometimes, they can get in the way

A strange contradiction just occurred to me. When doing my own research/uni work, I, by far, prefer to spend my time making the graphs and figures, looking at the pretty pictures representing my data graphically and trying to understand what it all means than I do writing it all down in words to share with other people. In marked contrast to this is my approach to reading a paper, where I am happiest letting my eyes flow over the text absorbing the words, and am slightly disgruntled when I have to interrupt my reading to go look at a figure to understand what the text is saying. The further away in the text the figure is, the more I feel the disruption to my reading. Only the best, newest versions of pdf papers, where the figure number is a link that takes one straight to the figure, and then the back arrow takes one back to the exact place in the text are welcome interruptions to the reading, because there is no pause between switching from words to the figure and back to the words again. And I find myself wondering why this is so. Probably because of many, many years of being an avid reading of science fiction and fantasy novels—I am more accustomed, still, to reading *stories* than to reading science. A good story is one wherein the reader forgets that they are reading, but becomes part of the story, and a return to the real world is jarring. Oddly enough, it is rare that a bit of scientific literature is that absorbing for me, but I do still get enough into the flow of the text that leaving it to look at the figures does come across as a distraction. To combat this phenomenon, there are times when I have first looked at the figures, and then read the captions carefully; worked out for myself what is being shown, and tried to draw my own conclusions before I read the text. That way, when the text says “blah, blah, blah as shown in figure 6” I can take half a glance, see which of the figures 6 is, and return to the text without losing track of what the sentence had been discussing. I suspect that this approach, used regularly, would be a good way to avoid ever feeling that “disrupted” feeling.

I also remember being a small child, new to reading, who loved looking at the pictures in my books, and being rather disappointed in the fact that as the books got bigger and started containing more interesting stories they contained fewer and fewer illustrations. I wonder if someone could go back and tell that child that someday she would grow up to show preference to the text, if she would believe them?

1 comment:

Vicki said...

I wish I could learn to love the graphs and stats side of things. I am just learning stats now..or at least am procrastinating it by reading other peoples science blogs.
I know I know. I'll never be a scientist if I keep putting it off.