23 August 2006

Ed Tufte on Truth & Beauty .... and Consequences

I have posted about Ed Tufte's work on data graphics before. Here is a story about Tufte from npr prompted by the appearance of his most recent book Beautiful Evidence. Tufte's work is really wonderful and important. In his home discipline (and my own) of political science, as well as in the social sciences more generally, it unfortunately has fallen more or less on deaf ears.

In my earlier post I noted the connection between Tufte's concerns and those of pragmatists like Dewey. I will take the opportunity to reiterate that point here. You can find the following passage in Dewey's The Public & Its Problems (1927) where he mounts a forceful challenge to elitist and technocratic skepticism regarding the scope of democratic politics:

"It is often said, and with a great appearance of truth, that the freeing of inquiry would not have an especial effect. For, it is argued, the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation. Unless these are read, they cannot seriously affect the thought and action of members of the public; they remain secluded in library alcoves, and are studied and understood only by a few intellectuals. The objection is well taken save as the potency of art is taken into account. A technically high-brow presentation would appeal only to those technically high-brow; it would not be news to the masses. Presentation is fundamentally important and presentation is a question of art. A newspaper which was only a daily edition of a quarterly journal of sociology or political science would undoubtedly possess a limited circulation and a narrow influence. . . . The freeing of the artist in literary presentation, in other words, is as much a precondition of the desirable creation of adequate opinion on public matters as is the freeing of social inquiry. Men's conscious life of opinion and judgement often proceeds on a superficial and trivial plane. But their lives reach a deeper level. The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness."

I am unsure how far Tufte would push his own views about accurate presentation of data and information - whether, that is, he is concerned primarily about influencing policy-makers or about having an effect on the public more generally. But that is of little concern since there is no reason to think that his point lacks a more general application. Dewey would surely applaud!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two quick comments - First, I really like the Dewey quote you use here, it almost seems too sensible and democratic to come from an academic! (and it has such contemporary relevance). Second, I think the picture you posted, from Tufte's book is best described as delightful, it made me smile.
Thanks for the post - oh and one last thing, Tufte's opinions on power point are very cool and on the mark.

23 August, 2006 20:44  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the comment - Dewey is my primary philosophical and political inspiration. Not everything he wrote is clear or persuasive, but I think he is generally on the mark. I do not own this new book from Tufte but plan to order it. As for powerpoint I think he is on the money re: the dumbing down of both the visual presentation and in terms of how it impacts verbal presentaitons. You should get a copy of his pamphlet on the subject (see his web page).

23 August, 2006 21:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The presence of truth can make us feel naked, but compassion takes all our shame away." BKS Iyengar

24 August, 2006 00:18  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon: Thanks for this remark. The truth does indeed often hurt quite a lot and even if it is often unclear just what the truth actually might be or who might be telling it or, if not, why not. And in personal relations compassion can go quite a distance toward allowing use to both ease the hurt and discern the whata, who, and why.

24 August, 2006 16:10  

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