Portraying complexity

Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable.
-Paul Valéry, Notre destin et les lettres, 1937

One of the reasons I like Chicago’s channel 9 for weather is because their graphics impart a huge amount of information with one glance.

A different kind of graphic, this one about the Afghan military situation, is bouncing around the internet.  Some see it as a way of representing the complexity of interconnected political, economic, and ethnic forces. Others say it’s a bowl of spaghetti and an example of how powerpoint is ruining the military.  When the general in charge of Afghanistan was shown the slide, he said, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

Here is the slide. I kind of like it.  It is at least on par with the map of London’s underground.

This brings up the question of whether powerpoint is dumbing down governmental decision making. When NASA investigated the crash of the Columbia space shuttle, its report argued that one of the underlying causes of the disaster was the practice of engineers presenting complex information to management with PowerPoint slides instead of 5-page written technical reports.  Edward Tufte, author of Visual Explanations (which the Boston Globe calls “a visual Strunk and White”– foreshadowing my later reservations about Tufte)  concludes:

Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ”faux analytical” technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker’s responsibility to tie his information together. And perhaps worst of all is how PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average, allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But, as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

Well I remember Colin Powell’s powerpoint presentation to the UN justifying the invasion of Iraq.

For those with short memories about NASA disasters, the Columbia shuttle disaster was caused by the damage to the wing by a piece of foam that detached during take-off; that disaster was in 2003.

There was also an earlier disaster, the Challenger disaster in January of 1986 that was caused by O-rings that failed when the launch was done in unusually cold weather. That disaster has been much studied as a case in maladministration. As it turns out, Tufte had his finger in analysis of that disaster too, only he blamed the engineers for not presenting their data clearly enough. But the engineers of Morton Thiokol did warn against launching Challenger. It was the managers who, under pressure from NASA, made the decision to launch anyhow, in a case that has since become the classic model of groupthink.  While the description of the powerpoints involved in the Columbia disaster are interesting, Tufte’s analysis of the Challenger disaster appears to be faulty and was not well received.

And Strunk and White poke their heads out once again in the comments of this description of one of Tufte’s seminars, “I agree without reservation: Strunk and White should be read annually. And for those in the teaching business, information transfer requires consulting Tufte, all four volumes, until his messages are welded into performance.” By now I am doubly convinced to read Tufte with caution.

The description was worth reading, though, just to discover Tufte’s example of  “the best chart the world has ever seen”:  a 1869 drawing by Charles Joseph Minard of  Napoleon’s March to Moscow.  The chart begins on the left-hand side, the tan line representing an army of 442,000 en route to Moscow. The black line, moving in the opposite direction, is the retreat. (click to enlarge)

Another example is John Snow’s 1854 London cholera map.

The map showed cholera deaths as black bars, all surrounding a neighborhood pump that was the source of the water-born cholera epidemic.  There is an excellent ten-minute talk about the map in the context of cities and public health.

Tufte’s sculpture is also worth looking at.

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