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Communicating scientific data

Diagrams, graphs and other schematics are essential tools in science communicators’ toolkits to communicate complex scientific data and concepts in an easily accessible format. These visuals are said to ‘augment’ cognition – they store and organise information for us, and provide visually salient cues about the relationships between variables. Without such visuals, we would have to exert additional mental effort to compute the raw information (e.g. numbers, text) into something meaningful.

However, visuals communicating scientific data on complex topics, such as climate change, can be difficult to understand for non-expert audiences. This can create challenges when scientists need to communicate important evidence with a range of audiences, such as policy makers, industry and the general public.

How can cognitive science help?

By taking a cognitive science approach – for example using eye tracking to measure people’s visual attention of graphs and diagrams – we can unpack the cognitive processes involved in understanding visuals of scientific data. Importantly, we can then use these insights to refine their presentation and support a range of users in interpreting the information.