Monday, July 03, 2006

Al Gore: The Modern Day Otto Neurath

Watching Al Gore's powerpoint presentation in An Inconvenient Truth reminded me of Otto Neurath's isotype in the first half of the 20th century. Neurath is one of those "smartest people you've never heard of" folks. He claimed to have read two books a day, everyday. Neurath was big: not only was he tall, but he had a big booming voice, bright red hair, and a long beard. When he walked into a room, everyone knew it. Neurath would sign correspondences with a cartoon elephant with a rose in the trunk instead of a signature -- a more apt representation of the man. He had a big heart, a big brain, a big mouth, and very big ideas.

He was a sociologist and a political economist. One of the first to rigorously study the effects of war on economies. Studying questions about class mobility in Europe, he came to believe that education was a major factor keeping workers from being able to better their lot, especially knowledge about science. He and a number of others in the young Logical Positivist movement would give seminars to union groups, evening classes designed to enrich the mind...hopefully allowing them to enrich their financial position.

But there was a problem. Neurath realized that the language of much of science is mathematical and mathematics, while a magnificent language, is quite difficult becausse of its very intense grammatical structure. Never mind physics, how could one even teach the economics that that factory workers would need if they were to understand why they are where they are? If the people were going to be empowered, they would need knowledge that only seemed expressible in a quantitative fashion. How could one convey mathematical relations in a way that doesn't require mathematical knowledge?

Then he hit upon it. Just like his signature -- the cartoon elephant -- better conveyed who he was than the scribbled letters, so, too, drawn images could representationally portray the mathematical facts in a directly comprehensible way. It would be called isotype, a new pictorial language in which to visually represent mathematical relations. We see it all the time now. Think of school textbooks where they want to show, say, how much more grain is produced in one state than in another. What do they show? Three and a half cartoon grain bundles in red next to one state name and eight cartoon grain bundles in green next to the other. That was Neurath's idea. It was a visual language designed to convey complex mathematical relations that underlie crucial scientific content.

And that is also exactly what Al Gore set out to do with his powerpoint presentation. Gore needed to take complex scientific results and convey them to non-scientists in a fashion that maintained their shocking nature. And he did it with pictures and images. He did it with graphs and charts, but in a way that you didn't need to understand the details about how to read graphs and charts. With representations of time passing by listing years in different colors, by presenting overlapping charts and visual images, Gore's presentation follows directly in Neurath's footsteps.

Neurath would no doubt be happy to see such a use. After the Anschluss, he had to flee Austria being a personal enemy of Hitler (there are references in Hitler's speeches that refer directly to Neurath himself), he landed in England where he died working for the public housing authority. As one who hoped that sceince was a force in the public interest, Neurath would have loved An Inconvenient Truth.