I recently had the pleasure of taking one of Edward Tufte‘s seminars, “Presenting Data and Information”. He’s a professor emeritus of statistics, political science, and computer science at Yale, and the author of an important set of books on charting: “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” (catchy title) (1983), “Envisioning Information” (1990), “Visual Explanations” (1997), and “Beautiful Evidence” (2006).
He published these himself, and gave them out at the seminar. Not only are they full of good and bad examples of how to present things, but they themselves are samples of what he is talking about in terms of being beautifully laid out, clear, and honest.
The last point is what makes him something of a cult figure. There were hundreds of people at this seminar, and he gives dozens of them every year. That’s far less than the turnout at, say, Tony Robbins cult sessions, but it’s pretty good for a retired professor.
The interest in him comes, I think, from his insistence that there is a moral quality to how one presents things.
Clarity and depth are not just techniques, they are virtues. They signal respect for your audience, and respect for the truth. Smearing data across twenty PowerPoint slides is not only coma-inducing, it’s a sign that you doubt your audience can handle a single clear table. Adding “chart junk” (E.g. drop shadows, logos, slow reveals) is a sign that you don’t think your ideas can withstand much scrutiny, or worse still, that you’re trying to hide something.
So who attends sessions like this? They must all be members of the new Information Class, people whose business it is to create and present knowledge and data. This includes scientists, of course, but also medical, software, and financial people. They’re all faced with discerning the truth amidst a flood of numbers. Scientific instruments generate tsunamis of data these days – the Large Hadron Collider produces 700 MB a second – and even storing it, let alone understanding it, is becoming impossible. The same goes for data from patients, or from programs, or from companies.
Looking around at them, I didn’t see that many distinctive class signs. They were overwhelming white or Asian, and a mix of ages and genders. They dressed casually; none of the men wore suits and few wore sports coats, and even Tufte didn’t wear a tie. There weren’t even that many beards. No one wore bling. Maybe the lack of status symbols was itself a sign of status symbol sensitivity, or maybe I’m so immersed in this culture that I don’t see its distinctive markers.
Anyway, Tufte himself has recently moved on from statistics and is doing sculpture. He says that he’s frustrated with doing things in only two dimensions on a page, when the third is readily available. He also showed an extraordinary example of that in a book that he displayed – the first edition in English of Euclid’s Elements, as owned by Ben Jonson (!). In the later sections on solid geometry, the printer had put in popups of pyramids and other geometrical constructs! This was in 1597.
Tufte has also been appointed by President Obama to be on the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel, a review board of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus program. It’s an inspired choice – if there’s anyone in the country who can boil down the effect of $800 billion in government spending, it’s him. I doubt that his report will have much political effect, given how little facts appear to matter these days, but at least we’ll have a clear record of what happened.