Book Review: Beautiful Evidence

Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte

I happened to find this book on an online search in my local library system, without ever having heard of Edward Tufte, but being intrigued by the title and by the range of material in the summary of the book. This book repaid every expectation and more, and is probably the finest nonfiction book I have read all year. The book was excellent enough that all of his other books are now going to be worthy of investigation, given their range between data visualization (the subject of this work) and political economy. Anytime an author can combine insights into how data visualization can be made more informative in fields as diverse as art criticism, sports, military cartography, and architecture, it is worthy of great interest. When an author manages to combine enough visual appeal to make this a worthy tabletop book, enough rigorous data analysis to make it worthy of rereading and reflection, and enough devastating wit [1] to draw just comparisons with Jane Austen’s novels, such a book is worthy of the highest possible praise.

In terms of its content, this book manages to combine depth and breath in a powerful and compelling way. The book begins with a look at mapped pictures, showing how images with proper scale and context serve as evidence and explanation instead of mere decoration, going back to the Renaissance with some gorgeous historical examples. Then the author examines sparklines in detail, showing how they are intense, simple, word-sized graphics that pack a lot of meaning into a little space and allow people to get things approximately right rather than exactly wrong. Of interest, Sparklines have also appeared in some of my reading on how to build effective SQL reports. After this comes as biting and thoughtful examination of some of the ambiguity of casual arrows and links. Then comes a chapter on how to put words, numbers, and images together for the benefit of understandings, rather than segregating them as is commonly done out of laziness by many publishers, for which the author gives devastating evidence. After this comes a chapter on the fundamental principles of analytical design, which seeks to draw attention to the need for the design of visual images to explain and teach subject matter, provide thoughtful content, and to give meaningful context to the data and evidence that is presented. After this comes two chapters that deal with corruption in evidence presentation, one of which is more general and includes some rather pointed deconstruction of a selection of text from an art history book and another which brutally excoriates the widespread use of Power Point in contemporary business and technical discussions, comparing it to Soviet-era Pravda presentations in terms of its authoritarian bias and value as truthful evidence. The book then closes with a chapter on the problem of pedestals in idolizing people or objects by removing them from eye level, showing the political content of certain design elements in sculpture and visual art, and some beautiful examples of the author’s own landscape sculptures. Despite the wide variety of subjects, all of the materials discussed in the book share the author’s characteristic wit as well as a deep concern with making the image serve the interests of teaching and improving literacy and in thoughtfully evaluating evidence (or the absence of evidence) for the claims an author makes.

There is a lot about this book that merits serious reflection, such that I can only touch superficially on them in a review such as this one. The book holds that if one takes care of truth, that beauty will take care of itself. It argues for the use of scale in every drawing and diagram to make it possible to put a given image in its context, so that it may aid in understanding. It points to the moral and political aims of visual representations of art, whether one is looking at the use of PowerPoint slides as a way to replace instruction with pitching, or in the use of visual representations to make fun of contemporary artists or to make an anti-war point from a scaled visual representation of the destruction of Napoleon’s Army during the 1812 invasion of Russia, done without once mentioning Napoleon on the diagram. A picture of a Soviet political meeting with contemporary business meeting text provides devastating commentary on the authoritarian nature of much contemporary business communication and its tendency to corrupt data through misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and misdirection. Even more fundamentally, the book looks at how proper data visualization, whether in text or image, is necessary to build trust and to communicate thoughtfully with others. Unexpectedly, the book dealt with some of the fundamental issues of my life, in a way that combined many of my areas of personal and professional interest along with my own moral and political worldview, all while showing how others had done data presentation well (especially Richard Feynman, whose books I became familiar with during my teenage years). The immensely rich layers of this text show an immensely skillful mind that takes a difficult conceptual subject and makes it compelling through gorgeous pictures and richly informative and entertaining text. It is a must read for anyone interested in the integrity of the presentation of data and arguments, and hopefully it does not sting too much.

[1] Some hopefully representative examples of the fierce wit of this book include the following passages:

“Making a presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual 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, willful misunderstanding of other points of view–suggests that the presenter lacks both credibility and evidence. T o 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 an intellectual and a moral activity.” p. 141

“For cynical or malicious presenters, chartjunk decoration reflects their contempt for evidence and for their audience. Chartjunk flows from the premise that audiences can be charmed, distracted, or fooled by means of content-free misdirection: garish colors, designer colors, corny clip-art, generic decoration, phony dimensionality. For decoration, it sure is ugly.

Audience members at a presentation featuring chartjunk rather than evidence should ask themselves “Is this the quality of analysis that we are relying on to understand a problem or to make a decision? Why should we trust this presenter? Just how high can the presenter count? Does the presenter think we’re fools? Why are we having this meeting?” p. 152

“Here we see a witless PP [PowerPoint] pitch on how to make a witless PP pitch. Prepared at the Harvard School of Public Health by the “Instructional Computing Facility,” these templates are uninformed by the practices of scientific publication and the rich intellectual history of evidence and analysis in public health. The templates do, however, emulate the format of reading primers for 6 year olds.” p. 177

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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