Agreeing to Disagree: Students Negotiating Visual Ambiguity Through Scientific Argumentation

  • Camillia MatukEmail author
Part of the Models and Modeling in Science Education book series (MMSE, volume 11)


Visual representations are commonly used as evidence for scientific claims. However, their potential for ambiguity can lead to multiple different interpretations. Both historical and contemporary cases exist of graphs that, by virtue of their ambiguity, have propelled public debate and misunderstanding of science. For instance, temperature graphs can be differently interpreted to support opposing views on global climate change; and questions over the choices of data and the formats of their displays have pitted designers against engineers over the causes of high profile space shuttle disasters. These examples demonstrate that a degree of representational competence is necessary to deal with ambiguity in visual evidence, and to ultimately engage effectively in scientific argumentation. This chapter considers the notion of ambiguity in graphs, and the skills necessary for engaging with that ambiguity in the context of scientific argumentation. I present an episode of dispute between two middle school students during a computer-supported inquiry project. Using the students’ argument over the interpretation of a graph of global temperatures, I illustrate how individual prior knowledge and expectations framed their differing interpretations, and how the same visual artifact served as evidence for their opposing claims. Analysis of this case highlights opportunities for learning to argue when instruction acknowledges ambiguity and legitimizes disagreement.


Visual Ambiguity Individual Prior Knowledge Global Temperature Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Ambiguous Focus 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, grant number 0918743. A preliminary version of this work was presented at CSCL 2011, the Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Learning.

Funding information Matuk, C. F., Sato, E., & Linn, M. C. (2011). Agreeing to disagree: Challenges with ambiguity in visual evidence. Proceedings of the 9th International conference on computer supported collaborative learning CSCL2011: Connecting computer supported collaborative learning to policy and practice, (Vol. 2, pp. 994–995). Hong Kong: The University of Hong Kong.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.New York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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