[Paleopsych] SciAm: Michael Shermer: The Feynman-Tufte Principle

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Michael Shermer: The Feynman-Tufte Principle
    March 28, 2005

    The Feynman-Tufte Principle
    A visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of
    a van
    By Michael Shermer

    I had long wanted to meet Edward R. Tufte--the man the New York Times
    called "the da Vinci of data" because of his concisely written and
    artfully illustrated books on the visual display of data--and invite
    him to speak at the Skeptics Society science lecture series that I
    host at the California Institute of Technology. Tufte is one of the
    world's leading experts on a core tool of skepticism: how to see
    through information obfuscation.

    But how could we afford someone of his stature? "My honorarium," he
    told me, "is to see Feynman's van."

    Richard Feynman, the late Caltech physicist, is famous for working on
    the atomic bomb, winning a Nobel Prize in Physics, cracking safes,
    playing drums and driving a 1975 Dodge Maxivan adorned with squiggly
    lines on the side panels. Most people who saw it gazed in puzzlement,
    but once in a while someone would ask the driver why he had Feynman
    diagrams all over his van, only to be told, "Because I'm Richard

    Feynman diagrams are simplified visual representations of the very
    complex world of quantum electrodynamics (QED), in which particles of
    light called photons are depicted by wavy lines, negatively charged
    electrons are depicted by straight or curved nonwavy lines, and line
    junctions show electrons emitting or absorbing a photon. In the
    diagram on the back door of the van, seen in the photograph above with
    Tufte, time flows from bottom to top. The pair of electrons (the
    straight lines) are moving toward each other. When the left-hand
    electron emits a photon (wavy-line junction), that negatively charged
    particle is deflected outward left; the right-hand electron reabsorbs
    the photon, causing it to deflect outward right.

    Feynman diagrams are the embodiment of what Tufte teaches about
    analytical design: "Good displays of data help to reveal knowledge
    relevant to understanding mechanism, process and dynamics, cause and
    effect." We see the unthinkable and think the unseeable. "Visual
    representations of evidence should be governed by principles of
    reasoning about quantitative evidence. Clear and precise seeing
    becomes as one with clear and precise thinking."

    The master of clear and precise thinking meets the master of clear and
    precise seeing in what I call the Feynman-Tufte Principle: a visual
    display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van.

    As Tufte poignantly demonstrated in his analysis of the space shuttle
    Challenger disaster, despite the 13 charts prepared for NASA by
    Thiokol (the makers of the solid-rocket booster that blew up), they
    failed to communicate the link between cool temperature and O-ring
    damage on earlier flights. The loss of the Columbia, Tufte believes,
    was directly related to "a PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic
    hyperrationalism" in which a single slide contained six different
    levels of hierarchy (chapters and subheads), thereby obfuscating the
    conclusion that damage to the left wing might have been significant.
    In his 1970 classic work The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Feynman
    covered all of physics--from celestial mechanics to quantum
    electrodynamics--with only two levels of hierarchy.

    Tufte codified the design process into six principles: "(1)
    documenting the sources and characteristics of the data, (2)
    insistently enforcing appropriate comparisons, (3) demonstrating
    mechanisms of cause and effect, (4) expressing those mechanisms
    quantitatively, (5) recognizing the inherently multivariate nature of
    analytic problems, (6) inspecting and evaluating alternative
    explanations." In brief, "information displays should be documentary,
    comparative, causal and explanatory, quantified, multivariate,
    exploratory, skeptical."

    Skeptical. How fitting for this column, opus 50 for me, because when I
    asked Tufte to summarize the goal of his work, he said, "Simple
    design, intense content." Because we all need a mark at which to aim
    (one meaning of "skeptic"), "simple design, intense content" is a
    sound objective for this series.

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