I took a class yesterday – more of a 1000 person lecture – with Edward Tufte, the author of four excellent books on ‘analytic design.’

It was a great class on design, and as someone who prepares large presentations about once a month, his excoriation of Powerpoint had me waving my hands in the air.

But there are two deep philosophies, maybe three, that I saw in his work yesterday that have me in that post-‘Zen slap to the head’ kind of mode, where I see things but can’t yet articulate them. And it has to do with a connection I’m seeing between his work and two issues that are very important to me – agile development and management, 4th generation warfare, and the political theory of praxis (in Aristotle’s sense).

I’m going to try to noodle through this in a few posts today and tomorrow.But I’ll leave you with three things of his – first, a quote.

Making a presentation is a moral act as well as a physical activity. The use of corrupt manipulations and blatant rhetorical ploys in a report or presentation – outright lying, flagwaving, personal attacks, setting up phony alternatives, misdirection, jargon-mongering, evading key issues, feigning disinterested objectivity, wilful misunderstanding of other points of view – suggests that the presenter lacks both credibility and evidence. To maintain standards of quality, relevance, and integrity for evidence, consumers of presentations should insist that presenters be held intellectually and ethically responsible for what they show and tell. Thus consuming a presentation is also a moral activity.

Next a key part of his excoriation of Powerpoint – an explanation of why ‘Powerpoint thinking’ doomed the shuttle Columbia.

And finally, an image:


15 thoughts on “Tufte”

  1. Hmm, funny – “powerpoint” thinking – generalizing, cherrypicking examples, faux equivalence, etc – is EXACTLY how I see your thinking as displayed here.

    Now, no need to really care about my opinion of course, but I will say I also love this particular quote. Again, my observation of your writings, is that your thinking style works in exactly the opposite manner.


  2. Facile, nearly content free, tu-quoque.

    If you were intending self-parody, hypo, then bravo. Otherwise, looks like just another cheap drive-by posting.

  3. …From someone who himself exemplifies (nay is an avatar for) every single charge he makes, and seems to offer relevant, substantive content only as an accident.

    Needless to say, this is not credibility-enhancing. My mileage does vary, thank you.

    Folks looking for a more contemporary example of Tufte’s thinking as it applies to the war, scroll down the comments re: his NASA Columbia “Power Point is Stupid and Makes Technical Managers Stupid” bit, and you’ll find this from Edward Tufte himself, on November 2, 2006. Interesting, I thought – I left out his personal speculations at the end, to focus on his area of expertise which is presentation of information:

    bq.. “Here are some preliminary comments on the slide “Iraq: I&W of Civil Conflict.”

    It appears that “I&W” means “Indications and Warnings.” Replacing the acronym in the slide title does pep up meaning to outsiders: “Iraq: Indications and Warnings of Civil Conflict,” but maybe it wouldn’t fit on the slide.

    Only this single slide was leaked (by the military? by DoD?), and so maybe some of the analytical problems are better handled on accompanying slides. Maybe.

    Doing competent political analysis, epidemiology, nation-building, and war planning (all of which they’re trying to do) in a chaotic situation is impossible, and not much good social science and epidemiology can be expected in chaos and from a military entangled in Iraq. In real-time chaotic situations, the data-collection is going to be sloppy because people have more important things to do. (Recall, for example, the gross errors in counts of 9/11 deaths, as the count went from 6,000 to 2,800 in a few weeks.) And what’s taking place is in profoundly different cultures and in different languages from those of the non-local military in Iraq. But sloppy data does not justify analytical sloppiness in reporting. In fact, sloppy data requires greater analytical precision of thought.

    The slide reports performance data–a list of phrases, with each phrase accompanied by a measure of performance. This is what the tables in the sports section, mutual fund page, and weather page of newspapers do very well. Those designs are much better for reporting performance data than the slide format here. In sports and stock market tables, each phrase is accompanied by multiple measures of performance, often over varying time-periods. All that won’t fit on the slide; this suggests that we should use better reporting method than PP, instead of abbreviating the evidence to fit the slide. As the millions of readers of sports tables each day demonstrate, people can easily manage large tables of information. Thus those being briefed in the military should ask: Why are our presentations operating at 2% of the data richness of routine tables found in the sports section? Let the viewers read and explore through a range of material; different eyes will search for different things in the evidence. The metaphor should be the cognitive style of the sports section (or weather or financial newspaper pages) not the cognitive style of PowerPoint.

    There is no cloud of uncertainty or error history associated with the editorializing color. At times, such color codings suggest an excess of certainty.

    The Iraq slide above provides some relevant but thin and overly short-run time-comparisons: 2 arrows on the left showing “change since last week,” and the “Index of Civil Conflict (Assessed)”, which sort of compares “Pre- Samarra” with “Last week” and “Current”. And there’s a potent time-comparison in words: “. . . violence at all-time high, spreading geographically.”

    To get more time comparisons on the 14 “Reads” and “Additional Indicators,” 14 sparkline time-line histories for the last year (week by week, if available) would be useful as a overall but detailed summary. This would reduce the snapshot tone of the 14 reads and indicators. In our thread Sparklines: theory and practice, there are (at the top of the thread) data tables with sparklines that report daily and longterm financial data; one such table shows 14,000 numbers, many of them accurate to only 2 digits (not much for financial data) under the philosophy of “Try to be approximately right rather than exactly wrong.” The short-run weekly jitters and non-reports need to be smoothed out to see (and compare with)the long-run trends. Weekly data cooperate with the notorious recency bias, whereby way too much weight is given to the most recent piece of data, just because it is recent. These weekly reports should be in the context of longer run information to reduce the chances that analysis will be dancing around only with today’s news.

    The list style, surely one damn thing after another here, is merely descriptive and thus preliminary to policy analysis. That analysis might have been done on the other slides or maybe this report is merely meant as a scorecard. If it is a scorecard, it is grossly impoverished compared to sports, weather, and financial tables.

    The current fashion (it, too, shall pass) in government is the stoplight style (green, yellow, red), which tends to dequantify data. With categories of this sort, there’s always a concern with how the breaks among categories are chosen and with the meanings of the categories. It will often be better to provide some evidence or numbers, and then a separate editorial-judgmental color about the number.

    The slide contains odd uses of the color-words: for example, a green dot indicating “routine” next to the exciting phrase “unorganized spontaneous mass civil conflict”. Shouldn’t “routine unorganized spontaneous mass civil conflict” be red-critical? After Hiroshima, would Nagasaki get the routine green dot for nothing different than what happened three days earlier? It looks like weekly wiggles get too much attention, and longrun levels of seriousness too little attention on this slide, as chaos becomes routine week by week and bit by bit. Monthly rather then the sketchy weekly reports might be better for policy analysis. Or at least provide a monthly aggregations over a period of many months (even the entire war) in a scorecard along with the weekly incidents.

    The leaking of the slide makes a point about the differences between the government’s secret analysis and the public reports by the Administration, a common theme of the insider books on Iraq policy-making (most recently Colin Powell’s book). At some time, “reality must take precedence over public relations,” as Richard Feynman remarked about the shuttle Challenger accident.

    A good many comments by our contributors are on-point but are not taken into account here.

    Note the measurements, definitions, and comparisons to standards in the customer scorecard in the “Report of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority” (above).”

    p. With an uncertainty gauge, the slide might actually serve as a useful purpose as an indicator of command’s “gut feel” for goings-on. Without it, Tufte’s criticisms are very much on point.

    They’re also good type-warnings to keep in mind as we consume presentations in business, policy, et., al. Which is, and he’s correct about this, a moral act just like creating such presentations.

  4. Joe,

    Eh, possible – as a liberal, I’m willing to cop to the evidence that I may have the exact faults that I rail against –

    Of course, for the guy who has made a living being the “pot calling the kettle black”, talking about leftists under the bed and such, your credibility is zero here.

    Needless to say, outside of science (where you care more about evidentiary matters than ideology), you rank pretty low in my estimation of truth-telling.

    But I’m cool with that – let other people decide who’s zooming who.

  5. I encountered Tufte’s first book about fifteen years ago, and I’ve never been able to look at graphical presentations of data the same way since. He’s a genius, in the sense of thinking far, far outside of the box, and showing you things you wouldn’t have found on your own. (Well, that I wouldn’t have found, and I’m pretty handy with numbers.) I’ve taken his course twice, own all four books on data presentation, and anytime I’m feeling stuck about graphics, I pull one of them down to browse. The fact he became his own printer when commercial presses wouldn’t produce to his high-end specs (bet they’re sorry now—they sell well) is a bonus.

    I strongly urge all WoC readers with interests in statistics, charting, design, or typography to check his work out.

    ObIraq: You do know that Bush signed onto the Kristol/Kagan surge after seeing their PowerPoint presentation, right?

  6. AJL – yeah, the whole Powerpoint management thing is a serious problem (really). But – here’s one hopeful thought.

    John Boyd did most of his work on overhead projectors (see ‘Patterns of Conflict’).


  7. As a military fellow I know the lonely path of trying to get people inducted into the Cult of Information Clarity. Here’s a small explanation of how the process of making things clear is not the process we use.

    The slide Tufte is discussing in Joe Katzman’s comment is a slide made by a staff pogue who’s likely been told to “make it simple, like a dashboard or a stoplight chart.” The staff pogue is working in an information environment with a different language and culture than Tufte’s using, so he doesn’t know that the green dot next to the scary language is exactly what we know it to be and we staff pogues were brought up understanding this pretty intuitively. This doesn’t mean Tufte can’t make the information presentation better; he clearly can. It means that what he, and other civilians get, from the slide isn’t what the guy who ordered the slide gets. This makes Tufte come to bad conclusions (such as assuming that some pogue making a CENTCOM slide is all of “government” and that it is directly related to his bigger picture of “the government’s secret analysis”) when the slide is leaked to the New York Times, who eagerly prints such things.

    Tufte tours with his roadshow, and many intel folks went to it the last time I looked. His specialty is a skill set worth acquiring.

  8. Chap – I almost fell off my chair! “pogue mahone” indeed! I wonder how many here understand that one? And are you answering hypocrisyrules? I certainly hope so, he irritates.

    AL – I just got out of a late “PMO Stoplight” chart review for a CIO and folks in Japan. Only one of the PMs talks to the stoplights correctly telling why they are what they are. Classic stuff. I always feel the meeting is useless, the attendees could just read the reports and address questions to the relevant person. It would be much more efficient.

    And the Japan office THRIVES on PPT stoplight charts and presentations. They do NOTHING else. But, the Japanese style of status review is to read aloud pre-agreed-upon reports. Most attendees take the chance to nap after lunch. It is truly a waste of time.

    I wish corporate America would abandon powerpoint altogether. I read part of Tufte’s article and just nod my head. I will finish the rest later.


  9. Been to one of Tufte’s multiple day events

    Been involved in studies, analyses and briefings to the 3 star level.

    Tufte has some good points but misses the fact that there is a lot of tacit knowledge behind most slides in DoD. Red light / amber light / green light being a relatively superficial example.

    Tufte started his event with a slam at the military. Then another. I don’t know how much he continued that because I left after the 3rd one in 2 hours.

    Got my money back too.

  10. I live and die by powerpoint as a History professor.

    Doesn’t *have* to be that way, but used right, it’s great.
    Used, wrong, it’s the death of information transfer, let alone clarity.

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