05 July 2011

Debating Chart Junk

In the current issue of The Washington Monthly is this slightly too adulatory story on the way Ed Tufte'e work has infiltrated Washington and, perhaps more importantly, the national media. As I have mentioned here repeatedly, I think Tufte's work is provocative and important. But there is no reason to treat him like a rock star.

That said, Tufte defends - quite vigorously - a set of views on what he calls "analytical design" that consist in a set of inextricably entangled moral assessments, aesthetic criteria, and empirical claims. And he can come across as, well, moralistic and judgmental. And I find his views generally persuasive!

Of course, Tufte's views are contestable. I recently came across an interesting exchange that assesses his condemnation of what he calls "chart junk" - design features in data graphics devoted to embellishment rather than conveying information. The first installment is this report by a group of computer scientists who conducted an experimental study of Tufte's thesis. The second installment is a defense (entitled "The Chartjunk Debate") by Stephen Few of a Tufte-esque position which you can find here. Few offers a charitable interpretation of what he sees as the flaws in the initial study.

This is an interesting exchange if you like this sort of thing. I know, I know . . . that's a big if!

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