We are reading more and more text displayed on screens, in landscape rather than portrait, or on tiny handheld devices. This hasn’t only affected the layout and typesetting, it has altered the way we write.
Short paragraphs and lists are now often used to break up blocks of text, and so are images. There is hardly any writing on the internet not decorated with an image. Besides reasons of layout there is the image grab of sharing apps that insists you need to have a picture. If none is provided this often comes out to be some advertisement or a commenter’s avatar. Adding a default image avoids this.
A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words, but these thousand words are specifics that are often uncalled for, in the best case distracting in the worst case misleading. Think of “scientist” or “academia”. What image to pick that will not propagate a stereotype or single out a discipline? You may want to use a female scientist just to avoid criticism, but then isn’t your image misleading? And to make sure everybody understand she’s a s-c-i-e-n-t-i-s-t, even though she’s got lipstick on, you need a visual identification marker, a lab coat maybe, or a microscope, or at least a blackboard with equations. And now you’ve got a Latino woman in a lab coat looking into a microscope when all you meant was “scientist”.FQXi launched a video contest “Show Me the Physics!” and in the accompanying visualization you’ll find me representing “scientist”, think bubble included (0:22). I’m very flattered that I’ve been promoted to a stereotype killer. Do you feel aptly represented? (Really, do not take pictures of yourself within 5 minutes of waking up. You never know, they might end up being your most popular ones.)
But if a picture adds a thousand words worth of detail, then a word calls upon a thousand pictures. The word is a generalization and abstraction that encompasses whole classes.
When my two year old daughter had spaghetti the first time, she excitedly proclaimed “Hair!” Humans are by nature good at classification, generalization and abstraction and this expresses in our language. That’s why we understand metaphors and analogies, and that’s where much of our humor roots.
This generalization is why we are so good at recognizing patterns, devising theories and, yes, at building stereotypes. Show me an image that captures all the richness, all the associations, all the analogies and connotations that come with the words “life” or “hope” or “yesterday”.
What are we doing then by drowning readers in unwanted and often unnecessary information? Sometimes I wonder if not the well-intended image works against the writer’s intent of making the text more accessible.
I love music, almost all kinds, but if anyhow possible I avoid music videos. I actually don’t want to know how the band looks like and I don’t want to know their interpretation of the lyrics. I want to make up my own story. Images are powerful. They stick. This video ruined David Ghetta’s Titanium for me.
This made me wonder if not this fear of the abstract, the word all by itself, is the same fear that leads science writers to shy away from equations. If a word calls upon a thousand images, an equation calls upon a thousand words. Think of exponential growth, or the wave equation, or the second law of thermodynamics. Did you just think of stirring milk into your coffee? Verbal explanations add details that are as uncalled for and can be as misleading as adding an image to illustrate a word. An analogy, a metaphor or a witty example does not convey what makes these equations so relevant: Their broad applicability and the ability to describe very diverse phenomena.
Recall these word problems from 8th class? The verbal description is supposed to make the math more accessible, but finding the equation is the real challenge. Science isn’t so much about solving equations. It’s about finding the equations to begin with. It’s about finding the underlying laws amidst all the clutter, the laws that are worth a thousand words.
Sometimes I wonder if I’d not rather be an abstract “scientist” for you, instead of a married middle-European mother of two, and I wonder what are the thousand words that my profile image speaks to you. And I fear that, by adding all these visual details, we are limiting the reader’s ability to extract and appreciate abstract ideas, that by adding all these verbal details to science writing, we are ultimately limiting the reader’s ability to appreciate science - in all its abstract glory. Hear my words...