Friday, October 10, 2008

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Early in my graduate school career (back when I used to have time to read widely), a fascinating book was published titled The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Its author Edward Tufte describes the book as a "celebration of data graphics". In the introduction, he writes

"Modern data graphics can do much more than simply substitute for small statistical tables. At their best, graphics are instruments for reasoning about quantitative information. Often the most effective way to describe, explore, and summarize a set of numbers--even a very large set--is to look at pictures of those numbers. Furthermore, of all methods for analyzing and communicating statistical information, well-designed graphics are usually the simplest and at the same time the most powerful."
Tufte suggests ways to improve data graphics. For instance, Chapter 4 concludes by summarizing these five principles: 1) Above all else show the data, 2) Maximize the data-ink ratio, 3) Erase non-data-ink, 4) Erase redundant data-ink, and 5) Revise and edit. Chapter 9 offers this recommendation: "Graphical elegance is often found in simplicity of design and complexity of data." Perhaps Tufte's poem at the end of Chapter 8 summarizes these ideas more succinctly:
For non-data-ink, less is more.
For data-ink, less is a bore.
Of course, words can't convey the lessons of this book. You need to see the graphics appearing on every page to appreciate his points.

Many of the readers of the 4th Edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will go on to become research scientists, engineers, or medical doctors, and will publish papers full of interesting data. That data will be presented more clearly, simply, and elegantly by following the principles and techniques outlined in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Tufte's other books.

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