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Give Our Regards To the Atomsmashers

Picturing the Uncertain World: How to Understand, Communicate, and Control Uncertainty through Graphical Display

by Howard Wainer
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2009
280 pp., illus. 11 color/ 108 b/w. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-691-13759-9.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture
Washington State University Vancouver


As Howard Wainer notes in his introduction and overview to Picturing the Uncertain World, "We live in a world of uncertainty" and "the road to advancing knowledge runs through the recognition and measurement of uncertainty rather than through ignoring it" (2). One of the more powerful tools in this endeavor, he says, is graphic display, transforming quantitative information into spatial representation.  But, understanding and depicting the science of uncertainty is often fraught with misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and misinformation. Wainer provides examples throughout his book that span history, politics, education, and methodology.

For example, in Chapter 3, "Stumbling on the Path toward the Visual Communication of Complexity," Wainer describes an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by former Secretary of State George Shultz in which a statistical graph showed the economic superiority of the two Bush administrations to that of President Clinton sandwiched in between. In truth, as Wainer explains, the graph plots factors other that what it claims to represent. When the correct factors are graphed the results are exactly opposite from what Shultz claims.  Neither graphs nor tables guarantee truth, says Wainer, and incorrect stories can be told by data displays just as easily as with words. Wainer cites a U.S. Department of Education graph showing how fourth grade reading scores remain flat despite increases in federal education funding. A more careful look, detailed by Wainer, shows a strong relationship between student test scores and federal money spent on education.  Wainer devotes several chapters to educational testing moving toward a focus on statistical thinking, tools, and graphics as methodology for guiding our thinking about issues both serious and popular.

Chapter 11, "Improving Data Displays," discusses the broad range of graphical displays used by the communication media, often on tight deadlines, focusing on some media displays that set a standard for excellence, as well as others that are flawed.  Chapter 13, "Depicting Error," pursues the idea that communicating data without some measure of their precision can lead to misinterpretation or misrepresentation. Wainer illustrates conventions for displaying errors along with the data they modify.

Throughout his book Wainer offers story after story about the understanding and display of information and/or uncertainty. His examples provide a clear understanding of the possibilities and pitfalls associated with presenting graphical information. This point is drawn out nicely in the book's final section, "History," in which Wainer explores the origins of some modern statistical tools and graphic display techniques and provides examples of their use. For example, in Chapter 15, "Truth is Slower than Fiction," Wainer connects the use of findings of nineteenth-century British polymath Francis Galton by Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and Jules Verne. Another chapter is devoted to William Playfair, of Scotland, who, in 1786, published a book detailing bar charts, line charts, and pie charts—three of the four current day basic graphic formats for depicting statistical data. Chapter 18, "When Form Violates Function," shows how a 2003 graph depicting the life of AOL attempts to copy (and fails) the success of Frenchman Charles Joseph Minard's 1869 graphic showing the fate of the French Army as it trekked to Moscow, Russia, and back during Napoleon's disastrous 1812-1813 campaign. Wainer notes that not every attempt to emulate Minard's success failed, and provides several examples and details how these efforts laid the groundwork for modern research in graphical information display.

Of particular note are the efforts of inhabitants of the Kovno (Lithuania) Ghetto to record their own deaths as part of the "Final Solution" implemented by Nazi Germany during World War II. Wainer notes the difficulty of memorial sponsors and designers to stir emotions, memory, and understanding for events that happen in distant time and space. Those that occur near at hand generally elicit stronger feelings. By producing a data display of their own demise, the residents of Kovno succeed in turning statistics into tragedy that grips its viewers even today.

Picturing Uncertainty concludes that poorly designed graphical displays of statistical or other information data is often the source, if not the perpetuation, of many examples of uncertainty. Yet, on the other hand, as Howard Wainer makes clear, graphical display allows one to take the measure of uncertainty and, when used wisely, correctly, can promote more effective presentation of uncertain information.

Last Updated 4 January, 2010

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