Beautiful Evidence


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If you were to ask any random group of people the question, “What is the purpose of art?” you would get many answers. These might include: “to delight”, “to inspire”, “to challenge”, “to communicate”, “to illuminate”, or “to provide for personal expression.” And while there are many other possibilities, it is unlikely that you would find “to baffle”, “to confuse”, or “to mislead” amongst the answers. It is commonly accepted that art exists to help us find truth, not to obscure it.

Which makes it very similar to Science in that respect. Indeed, Science and art share many things in common. Like art, Scientific inquiry can delight, inspire, challenge, and communicate. It can even provide for the expression of unique ideas. And like art, it must never seek to baffle, confuse, or mislead.

Unfortunately, the raw stuff of science — evidence — often does just that. Upon first encountering a piece of evidence — whether in a scientific publication, as part of a TV program, or amongst the ether of the Internet — it is often impossible to understand what you’ve found. The meaning and truth have been thoroughly obscured.

This is not usually due to malicious intent on the part of the scientist who created the data. Scientific evidence can be extremely complex, and it is difficult to convey complex ideas. Science exists to explain mysteries of existence, after all.

But that explanation, on its own, is incomplete. You don’t have to look far to find examples of scientific evidence that is beautifully rendered and exquisitely clear. Consider the astronomical images of Galileo, the schematic diagrams of Leonardo Da Vinci, the paintings of James Audobon, or the engravings of Johannes Kepler, for example.

John James Audobon - Barn Owl
John James Audobon - Great Blue Heron
John James Audobon - Ivory Billed Woodpecker
John James Audobon - Meadow Lark
John James Audobon - Zenaida Macroura
John James Audobon - White Gerfalcons
John James Audobon - American Anas
John James Audobon - American Wildcat
John James Audobon - Campephilus
John James Audobon - Golden Eagle
John James  Audobon - Ruffled Grouse
John James Audubon - Canada Goose
John James Audubon - Carolina Pigeon
John James Audubon - Flamingo

John James Audobon - Barn Owl

John James Audobon - Great Blue Heron

John James Audobon - Ivory Billed Woodpecker

John James Audobon - Meadow Lark

John James Audobon - Zenaida Macroura

John James Audobon - White Gerfalcons

John James Audobon - American Anas

John James Audobon - American Wildcat

John James Audobon - Campephilus

John James Audobon - Golden Eagle

John James Audobon - Ruffled Grouse

John James Audubon - Canada Goose

John James Audubon - Carolina Pigeon

John James Audubon - Flamingo

Which leads to a brutal conclusion: while it is possible to clearly communicate difficult things, most scientific work is poorly understood because it is poorly communicated. While care may have been taken to ensure accuracy in its collection and analysis, that same stewardship is absent in the way it is presented to others.

This is a great tragedy. Examples of “Beautiful Evidence”, as Edward Tufte calls them abound. They show us “how seeing can turn into showing, how empirical observations turn into explanations and [understanding]” [1]. For this reason, such examples should be collected, scrutinized, and treasured.

In this gallery, you can find my favorite examples of Beautiful Evidence. Among them are pieces of illustration, calligraphy, technical diagrams, paintings, and charts which have helped me to see the world in a new way.

[1] Edward Tufte, Beautiful Evidence, page 9.