Edward Tufte makes me feel guilty.

I’m currently reading “Beautiful Evidence” by Edward Tufte, a giant of critical thinking and a commenter on data and presentation, amongst many, many other things. In the introduction is a line that surely stands as the metre by which all those who stand at any time to present should be measured.

‘Federico Cesi wrote that Galileo’s 38 hand drawn images of sunspots “delight both by the wonder of the spectacle and the accuracy of expression.” 

That is beautiful evidence.’

In his chapters dealing with Evidence Presentations, Tufte maintains these lofty standards. He pulls no punches however, even in the title: “Corruption in Evidence Presentations: Effects Without Causes, Cherry Picking, Overreaching, Chartjunk, and the Rage to Conclude.” Sadly this describes the vast majority of presentations we are exposed to and, in confession, many that I have delivered.

Tufte maintains that, “Making a presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual activity.” It is clear however that these responsibilities belongs not only to the presenter but to the audience as well. When we stand to report our science or our business, we owe our audience honesty and diligence in the delivery of those facts. As much integrity is also required in the conclusions drawn; the audience do not have access to the primary data and thus if we imply, show evidence, trends toward or conclude this must be reasonable and honest. In receiving such presentation we cannot simply reply, “thank you for your presentation, I enjoyed it very much,” and stand idly by when supposition is portrayed as fact, when guesswork is illuminated as conclusion and where misrepresentation by error or comission becomes fact for future use. 

Simply using slideware neither allows one to tell untruths, nor receiving them, accept them as gospel.

But we do it all the time. The reasons for this are complex and ultimately not important. We should stop. There is a moral and intellectual imperative in giving and receiving presentations.


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