Late yesterday, Mother Jones's Kevin Drum teed off on a popular new villain in the blogosphere: graphs. "I love presenting information in a graphical format," he writes, "but this is now so omnipresent in the wonkosphere that even I tend to switch off when I see a headline that says something like 'Everything you need to know about [xxx] in two charts.' "
Drum's post follows a review by science writer Chris Moody of the new book by Joe Romm, Language Intelligence, which argues that rhetoric rather than data will be the tool that convinces climate-change skeptics that the threat is imminent. And at National Review, Reihan Salam stands up for the value of graphs but says that they are being abused and overused, which is another way of saying their value is declining. Meanwhile, Wonkblog posted a lot of charts.
This is a wrong turn for the argument to take at a time when architects and planners need to be pushing the science of their work more than ever. It would take a finer writer than I am to write a soaring argument for a national building policy. How do you make that sexy? Maybe Shakespeare could do it, but I'm fine with what Ryan M. Colker has done here: it's no paean, but it's a convincing presentation.
No doubt there is room in the policy argument over climate change for a rhetorical frame. But I don't know that building-energy use is so natively inspirational a subject that even a Christopher Hitchens could make a more compelling case than a detailed infographic showing how energy codes make homes more efficient.
Eventually there is always a place for rhetoric, even in a narrow debate about building energy-use policy (which actually has rather large implications for the policy debate about climate change). Where to seat this regulatory authority, for example. What gets the speechifiers on the House floor is good numbers.