Words that follow

The title of my previous post was inspired by Edward Tufte’s latest book of the same title, which I read shortly after its publication and before my daughter’s arrival into the world. Beautiful Evidence carries on in the high tradition of his previous work and I recommend it to anyone who produces or consumes information and wants to do so more effectively and concisely.

Two remarks by Tufte really stuck in my mind from reading his book as follows:

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. 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 an intellectual and moral activity.

When a precise, narrowly focused technical idea becomes metaphor and sprawls globally, its credibility must be earned afresh locally by means of specific evidence demonstrating the relevance and explanatory power of the idea in its new application. It is not enough for presenters to make ever-bolder puns, as meaning drifts into duplicity. Something has to be explained.

Tufte’s second remark refers to his contention that puns enable overreaching–previously bright ideas sprawl, grow mushy, and collapse into vague metaphors when extended outside their original domain.

Speaking of evidence-based, not theory-driven, conclusions, Beautiful Evidence captures Tufte’s evidence invention, Sparklines–“intense, simple, wordlike graphics.” More on sparklines later…

Update 8/29/2006: Via the 37signals feed comes another Tufte quote of note: “If your words aren’t truthful, the finest optically letter-spaced typography won’t help. And if your images aren’t on point, making them dance in color in three dimensions won’t help…If you look after truth and goodness, beauty looks after herself.” -Edward Tufte

Update 12/1/2008: For more of my book reviews and to see what else is in my book library (i.e. just the business-related or software-related non-fiction therein), please visit my Books page.