VisWeek papers 2: “Graphical Inference for InfoVis”

If I had to pick a single paper from the all the VisWeek papers I’ve read so far, it would easily be “Graphical Inference for InfoVis”, by Wickham, Cook, Hoffman and Buja.

What I like about this paper is that is neatly shows the basic difference between the visualization mindset and the statistical mindset. Visualization folks have the following meta-strategy: “Is there any way that I can build a picture in which the data will tell me something?” Statistics folks, on the other hand, tend to think: “Is there any way that these results about the data are fooling me?” While visualization is immensely helpful in actually finding these patterns in the data, it is just as important that we do not fool ourselves, and the fact that VisWeek this year is bringing back the “Vis Lies” session is a testament that we are all aware of this problem, even if only in the back of our minds.

This paper presents two neat experimental protocols which let you use the best of both worlds, using visualizations to bringing out patterns, while making sure that the patterns you do find are in the data itself and not an artifact of the way you decided to encode your variables. In passing, the paper also has a great explanation of statistical testing in general, and the single best accurate description of what p-values really are (if you’ve never heard a good explanation about them, you’re likely to get it wrong).

I can’t recommend this paper strongly enough. If I had to decide on a single paper this year which I think people will easily remember in 10 years, this would be it.

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3 responses to “VisWeek papers 2: “Graphical Inference for InfoVis”

    • carlosscheidegger

      No need for thanks! As you know, setting visualization on firmer foundations is something very important to me, and I think this paper is a genuinely novel attack.

      And since I now know you read this, I can ask a specific question 🙂 How dependent are the results on having a good generative model for the data samples? In a sense, you could trivially get a visual statistical test (like the Lineup protocol) to give “significant” results by checking against a distribution which you know to not have anything to do with the data. Let’s call this a “strawman” protocol. Then, how would you do this if getting a generative model is hopeless?

      Also, this thought kept popping in my head as I was watching the slides – I think there might be some utility in using bootstrap samples of the dataset to repeat the lineup protocol several times. This way, any rare outliers that might throw off the lineup protocol by having “spurious” visual features would be smoothed out.

  1. I missed that paper – glad you pointed it out, this is very cool idea. In general I think such a visual statistical test could be very useful for user studies of various vis methods. However, I was wondering what examples are where a numerical test (some sort of non-parametric or permutation test) is not feasible?

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