Edward Tufte Shows Us How to Properly Share Data That Combines Text, Numbers, and Images


Beautiful Evidence – Edward Tufte (2006)

            Sometimes the book lords look down upon us lowly humans and grace us with tomes we would otherwise not read or know about.  Such was the day I found this amazing work by professor, author, and sculptor, Edward Tufte.  As one of my co-workers cleaned out her office, she stacked a bunch of books aside for anyone who wanted them.  I grabbed three that caught my eye, and immediately began devouring Edward Tufte’s masterpiece.

            The introduction to this work explains Tufte’s focus, the intersection of science and art, specifically as it relates to the dissemination or presentation of raw data.  One of the thoughts in his Introduction really hit home for me, “Making an evidence presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual activity.”  This goes for the consumers of these presentations as well.  One must be ready, when faced with a presentation of evidence, to think and judge not only what data they discuss but also how they present it.  This analytical thinking is crucial to the proper dissemination of knowledge in our data-packed world.

            Tufte begins his exploration of this subject by focusing on what he calls “Mapped Pictures: Images as Evidence and Explanation.”  He, much like I do, deplores the out-of-context images used by periodicals when writing about scientific subjects. An example of a well-mapped image is the type used in visual catalogues of flora and fauna, where, for example, the fish in question is portrayed in both profile and overhead views, which provides much more data than a single image.  Those images may also contain data about the subject, such as the length of the fish, the coloring of the fish, the species’ Latin name, etc.  Many of these animal catalogues fail to provide much data, apart from the image of the animal itself.  This is a disservice, both to the scientists that catalogued the animals, and to the reader wishing to encounter useful and correct information about them.

            Tufte provides beautiful examples of many types of mapped picture, from images detailing which stars make up the constellations in the sky, to diagrams showing the horrendous conditions that Africans were placed into by their captors who sought to pack as many onto these ships as possible.  Such an image shows not only the extent of the horror, but specific details of the horror, allowing the reader to grasp a far bigger idea than just the image itself.

            The author analyzes other methods of information exchange.  From sparklines (a graphic showing a change in value over time, such as a line graph representing the temperature in a given city over a month) to word and arrow diagrams (such as a family tree, or an evolutionary line), each is discussed at length.  Mr. Tufte seeks to show the best possible ways to convey information, keeping in mind each method’s weaknesses and strengths.

            In the chapter on the confluence of words, numbers, and images, Tufte’s first example is from the genius of Leonardo da Vinci.  In his countless notebooks, where he wrote and drew about his constant explorations, vivid drawings live right next to explanatory text and data in number form.   The ability to combine all three into a work so profound shows the reasoning and ability of da Vinci’s deep skill.  As Tufte proclaims, it is a shame that more scientists have not taken up the model provided by Leonardo.

            Another aspect of publishing that upsets Tufte, for it derails the hard work of the scientists, is what happens when publishers create new editions of classic books.  For some reason, the editors feel they need to re-arrange the layouts of the books, shifting all the text into one section, and placing the images in another.  When the purpose of the book is to educate, using words and images concurrently, such as in Galileo’s “Siderius Nuncius” (The Starry Messenger), too many publishers fail to see the importance of both text and images living side by side.  Moving images to an appendix reduces the capability of the reader to grasp what the author intends.  The worst example of this is in the editions of Isaac Newton’s “Opticks.”  Tufte shows how, from the initial pressing in London, the pertinent images were placed in a separate section from the text they belong to.  It was not until the first German edition (1898) that the images and text were fully integrated.  In 1952, the first proper printing in English occurred.  Sadly soon after four more badly edited editions would see the light of day.  As Tufte states, it is a shame that “…it took 258 years to combine word and image in the original English.”

            The latter half of this book explores the fundamental principles of analytical design, and provides some amazing examples of quality work.  The best part of the second half of the book is where Edward Tufte patiently explains the many ways that data is corrupted in evidence presentations, with the most vitriol aimed at the ubiquitous and hated Power Point software.  The damage that PP has done to professional information exchange is hard to calculate, but Mr. Tufte does a great job of explaining it.  The saddest fact I read was how, when the space shuttle Columbia accident occurred, an independent body analyzed NASA’s information exchanges, focusing on how warnings about the shuttle were ignored or avoided altogether.  The analysis showed that nearly 90% of all data shared at NASA was in the form of PP slides.  HORRENDOUS.  Tufte explains how these slides, containing minimal information, and allowing for minimal understanding, corrupt the very processes intended to inform and educate, leading to tragic errors and human suffering.

            As it should be, this book is a beautiful production.  Edward Tufte uses all of his skills and knowledge to construct a perfect blending of image, numbers, and text.  He sets a great example for anyone writing in the sciences, and anyone seeking to share information properly.  For a visually oriented person book lover like myself, this was an amazing discovery.  The book angels were looking out.  I highly recommend this book and hope it influences many to think deeper about how to portray their data, and how to engage the mind of the reader.

(This book can be purchased from the Author here: https://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_be )

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