Side Note #1: Stories as Information Structure

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This post probably moves away a bit from the intended focus of the blank graph, but it does so for a reason. Visualization and intelligent data analysis are to a large part about putting structure where there was none before. The human mind reaches its limits with large data sets, where many cognitively efficient ways to come to judgements fail. That is why it is important to reduce and structure.

Interestingly, a very similar approach can be applied to the way humans interact. Andreas Jungherr, a good friend of mine, (cf. my blogroll) sees stories as the integral factor in political leadership. Stories, he proposes in an article on leadership (German only so far, sorry), cut down on ambiguity, doubt and fear by condensing what’s going on in society into archetypical figures following a plot.

In this context, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has written some great descriptions of the way a good visual/textual explanation should work. The following excerpt is taken from the EDGE homepage (a recommended reading on scientific culture) which itself is one sample chapter of the book “Third Culture : Beyond the Scientific Revolution“.

Daniel C. Dennett: If you look at the history of philosophy, you see that all the great and influential stuff has been technically full of holes but utterly memorable and vivid. They are what I call “intuition pumps” — lovely thought experiments. Like Plato’s cave, and Descartes’s evil demon, and Hobbes’ vision of the state of nature and the social contract, and even Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative. I don’t know of any philosopher who thinks any one of those is a logically sound argument for anything. But they’re wonderful imagination grabbers, jungle gyms for the imagination. They structure the way you think about a problem. These are the real legacy of the history of philosophy. A lot of philosophers have forgotten that, but I like to make intuition pumps.


I coined the term “intuition pump,” and its first use was derogatory. I applied it to John Searle’s “Chinese room,” which I said was not a proper argument but just an intuition pump. I went on to say that intuition pumps are fine if they’re used correctly, but they can also be misused. They’re not arguments, they’re stories. Instead of having a conclusion, they pump an intuition. They get you to say “Aha! Oh, I get it!”

Further Reading:

Dennett, Daniel C. “The Intentional Stance”. 1989.

Dennett, Daniel C. “Consciousness Explained”. 1992.


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