During the last two days, I spent a great deal of time corresponding with my friend Alberto Cairo after he informed me that he was hosting a public lecture by David McCandless at the University of Miami. Alberto and I are both critical of McCandless’ infographics. I am more passionate in my criticism, however, perhaps because I frequently and directly encounter the ill effects of McCandless’ influence. More than anyone else working in data visualization today, McCandless has influenced people to design data visualizations in ways that are eye-catching but difficult to read and often inaccurate. Also more than anyone else, when my readers and students talk about the challenges that they face in the workplace because their bosses and clients expect eye-candy rather than useful information effectively displayed, they identify McCandless as the source of this problem.
You can imagine my dismay when Alberto told me about the lecture. I argued that he shouldn’t provide McCandless with a forum for promoting his work unless he also provided a critique of that work during the event. Alberto’s position was that, as an academic and a journalist, he should provide a platform for anyone whose work in the field of data visualization is known, regardless of quality or the harm that it does. Further, he argued that his students and those who have read his books already know that he finds much of McCandless’ work lacking. My response to this was, “What about those who attend the event but are not your students or readers?” After the discussion, I found myself wanting to ask one more question: “What do I say to someone who tells me that his boss attended the lecture, and this exposure to McCandless’ work set his efforts to promote effective practices back by several years?” Even worse, what if he also says, “Steve, I encouraged my boss to attend the lecture because it was hosted by Alberto Cairo, whose work you’ve praised.”
To no avail, I pleaded with Alberto to provide a counterpoint to the presentation to make it clear to attendees that McCandless often promotes practices that are ineffective. I argued that without providing this counterpoint, he was abdicating his responsibility as a teacher and a journalist. He saw it differently. He replied that his indirect approach to combating ineffective practices is perhaps more effective than my direct approach.
Is Alberto right? Was it appropriate for him to host a public lecture by McCandless without offering a counterpoint? Should I become less direct in my criticism of harmful practices? Will they cease to plague our work faster if I do? What does your experience tell you?