Monday, February 25, 2008

Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte

Beautiful Evidence
by Edward Tufte

Hardcover, 214 pages
Graphics Press, 2006
Order directly from the publisher:

Essay by
Michael Pastore

George Orwell, famous for the (sadly) prophetic dystopian novel 1984, has written other works worthy of careful reading. His essay Politics and the English Language exposes techniques used by propagandists (governments and advertisers) to intentionally distort reality and truth. In Orwell’s autobiographical novel Down and Out in Paris and London, the book’s hero mingles with the poor and homeless in those great cities. After months of talking with these forgotten men — men who could not answer the question “Who lived first, Jesus or Napoleon?” — Orwell concluded with this memorable remark: “Their ignorance was limitless and appalling.”

This week, two works were announced, either one of which should make us wonder not if, but when that colossal ignorance has shifted continents. Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason, surveys our culture of childishness and our lack of intellectual depth. A new film, Two Million Minutes compares three pairs of typical high school students — in America, China and India. The difference? Instead of partying and watching television, students in China and India do something revolutionary with their high-school years: they work diligently and they learn.

What can save America from this nosedive into absolute stupidity? … We need intelligent leadership — meaning, a president and Congress who are educated, and value knowledge and art. We need a revolution in education, and in teacher training, from the kindergarten to the university. We need a better media, committed not only to truth, but to something that was once called ‘wisdom’. And we need a core of intelligentsia — authors, artists, and practical-minded intellectuals — who can advise us throughout this enormous change.

One of these authors is Neil Postman. His book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1999) examines the Enlightenment thinkers, and shows how their timeless ideas might be used to renew our floundering schools. Postman died in 2003, yet the torch still burns in the hands of another author of integrity and genius, who, like Postman, is well-versed in both history and technology, and unafraid to question the technologies that oversimplify our lives and make things worse. Edward Tufte is this author, and his latest book, Beautiful Evidence, is a stunning masterpiece of content and design.

What is Beautiful Evidence about? … Tufte is the world’s leading authority on analytic design (more commonly called “information design”). In an interview, he explained:

“The point of analytic design is to assist thinking.”

Tufte has developed an ingenious set of principles that allow scientists, researchers and scholars to use all the available data (evidence) — numbers, text and images — in the best possible way, to discover and convey a truth.

The book itself is gorgeous. Filled with large and unique images, each page contains another visual and intellectual surprise. You see, for example, a “simple” still life painting by Cezanne or an innocent line drawing by Matisse. After a few pages of Tufte’s analysis of the work of art, it is no longer simple. Our seeing becomes intensified, and thus more dimensions of the work are immediately revealed. Here is the first reason why, to me, Tufte’s work seems so essential: he bridges the terrible gap between art and science — and between artists and scientists. Art without precision and knowledge is often sloppy and superficial. Science without art — without feeling and imagination — can be false, misapplied, and dangerous.

We are drowning under seas of information. Tufte states that the number of PowerPoint slides produced each year is between 100 million and 1 billion. We have oceans of information, yet all this data does nothing but befuddle us — unless we are trained to distinguish the significant from the meaningless. And here is the second reason why every thinking person should study Tufte’s works: he shows us reliable techniques for debunking falsehoods and discovering truths.

“Making a presentation is a moral act, as well as an intellectual activity.”
—Edward Tufte

Beautiful Evidence — written primarily for academics and scientists who explain things with numbers and charts — can nevertheless be enjoyed by any intelligent reader. For consumers of information (meaning: the entire world), awareness of Tufte’s ideas enlightens us about the doublespeak of disfunctional politics, and the doubletalk of fatuous advertising campaigns. For everyone who teaches or explains, Tufte’s chapter about the failure of PowerPoint (with a reference to Peter Norvig’s parody of a powerpointed Gettysburg Address) can improve your presentations. “Improve your presentations” does not mean making better PowerPoints, like the popular video (now circulating YouTube) that advocates the “10—20—30 rule”: have no more than 10 slides; make the presentation no longer than 20 minutes; and set the font size at a minimum of 30 points. Tufte’s solution is radical and right on target: he suggests giving up our sacred PowerPoint, and replacing it with a well-written scientific report, a 4-page illustrated handout, and a presentation format that includes a discussion between the presenter and the audience.

In ancient Greece, the art of rhetoric split into two antagonistic paths. There were the Sophists, who, for one lepta, would persuade you that A equals B — and then for a drachma would be happy to convince you that what they just taught you was false. Rhetoric had deteriorated into a psychological battle known as the art of persuasion: how to get people to think and do whatever you want them to do and think. Socrates invented a better idea. The Socratic method uses questions to debunk false claims and to reveal true ideas. The technique is summarized in these words of Socrates: “Let us go forth together in search of truth. And if we disagree, and you can show me that you are right, then I will be the first to give way.”

This noble and beautiful Socratic spirit lives on — in all the words, images and works of the artist-scientist Edwarde Tufte.

== End of Review ==

Related Links to Review of Beautiful Evidence

Edward Tufte (and Graphics Press) website:

George Orwell: Text of Novel Nineteen Eighty-Four:

George Orwell: Film of 1984:

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London:

George Orwell: Politics and the English Langauge:

Susan Jacoby book: The Age of American Unreason (article in NY Times)

2 Million Minutes (film)

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as a PowerPoint Presentation (by Peter Norvig):

Neil Postman - Article in WikiPedia:

Science + Government = Bad Science: