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Truth is the Best Revenge!

by Gerald Jones

IWOSC member Gerald Jones wrote this piece as an introduction to his book, How to Lie with Charts, which was published in 1995. 

If you feel a twinge of guilt as you pick up this book, don't worry--you are among friends. I admit that the title is provocative, promising a tantalizing debasement of moral values, at least in the realm of business intercourse. But don't be ashamed that you are tempted to look behind the peepshow curtain. We have all been there, or wanted to.

Make no mistake: The promise of the title is not false. In these pages can be found the potent means to work serious mischief. Call me an optimist, but I have a better opinion of your motives. I can think of several legitimate--even honorable--reasons for your wanting to know how to lie with charts, and I like to think those are the real reasons I wrote this book for you.

For the moment, then, let's assume that you're not a shameless, unprincipled liar who will stop at nothing in your frenzied scurry to the top of the heap. What is there for you here? You may have been drawn to this book because you feel, as most of us have at one time or another, that you have been lied to. Whether you are a manager being presented with a suspiciously rosy sales forecast or an investor being enticed with a pretty addition to your portfolio, you could be easy prey for seductive chartmakers. Learning their nasty tricks is one way to even the odds, if not the score.

Another indication that you need to get acquainted with the tricks of the liars' trade stems from a deep-seated fear of lying. When you are the one poised to present, you don't want to get caught with your pants down (unless that's your deliberate plan). In this litigious era, an overdose of caution might be downright healthy. Therefore, go ye and study the liars, that ye may abjure their ways! Let's posit a Golden Rule of the Information Age: Don't show unto others what you don't want shown unto you.

Beyond your own sense of conscience, this crack in your confidence, there's the yawning chasm of public ignorance. For the most part, we are a society of trusting illiterates, where charts are concerned. And the situation is getting worse. Why? Like so many complexities of postmodern life, computers are at the root of the problem.

Charts have become the lingua franca of the information age, and you would think that would be a boon to communication. After all, charts are prettier than dreary tables of numbers. And, these days, those pretty pictures are so easy to make! Gone is the tedium of the careful draftsman, especially now that we have pint-sized computers popping up all over the place in our homes and offices. Thanks to the developers of graphics software, it has become a trivial task to create charts of all kinds-in full color, no less.

These days, if your work routine includes charting, it just doesn't make sense to do without the labor-saving miracle of digital personal computing. And it's probably just as well that charts can be made so effortlessly, because otherwise the only people who would be interested in looking at the numbers would be the privileged few who make the decisions, and that strikes me as decidedly undemocratic!

It's been almost two centuries since Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Lovelace tried to invent the computer using a steam engine, but, all things considered, it has been worth the wait. We are fortunate that electronics technology came along just in time to finish the job, that the nuclear arms race stimulated the development of high-performance computer displays, and that the far-sighted wizards of Silicon Valley responded so capably to the marketplace demand for computer games from a generation called X that is fast maturing into a new breed of video-junkie financial analysts who want their information on the screen, in color, and fast. Thanks to these happy accidents of history, we can now create charts literally at the press of a button.

But I wonder. Although I'm not ready to totter off with the likes of my fellow curmudgeons, I am old enough to dimly remember a time when we were not so fortunate. I have a vague recollection of peering out through the bars of my crib to watch my honorable forebears labor mightily with pencil, ruler, and graph paper to eke out a meager living on the dusty plain of a world that had yet to invent cheap electronics. (I always knew I had very special parents.) As I look back on it, I wonder if there wasn't a greater wisdom in those primitive efforts. Having such crude tools might have forced those early chartmakers into slower thought processes. It is conceivable that they actually pondered carefully the composition--maybe even the content!--of those pathetically simple charts and graphs.

Can it be that in their technological poverty they achieved a higher level of consciousness? Did they actually come to grasp the meaning of their graphic creations? As has happened again and again throughout human history, in gaining new knowledge we have had to shed the innocence of the past, which once enfolded us like a protective garment. We now stand naked before our computer monitors (at least until two-way video comes into general use). Empowered as the new gods of cyberspace, we have been granted the ability to devour megabytes of data at a single gulp, digest it in mere microseconds, and spew it forth without further thought as visually stunning color imagery.

My fear, though, is that the wisdom of old has disappeared in the brief, electronic zap! that transforms raw data into those pretty pictures. The good news (and there will be plenty of it if the Gaia Effect proves to work as advertised) is that, having generated this visual information so thoughtlessly, we can change it in a blink of the other eye. I harbor the hope, then, that there is just time to shape the wet clay of our understanding about charts before it solidifies into something that future generations will not be able to grok.

Now that I have you bound and gagged by virtue of your having paid your hard-earned, devalued dollars to remove this book from the opulent comfort of your favorite superstore, you may be wondering why you should heed my advice on the perils of lying with charts. Well, despite the lessons of my early childhood education, I did not from a young age set out to become a guru to chartmakers. My career, like the other happy accidents of history, seems only in retrospect to have been guided by an unseen hand. And, believe it or not, when I peered out of the bars of that crib and saw my father soldering together his first computer from an assortment of colorful resistors and other tiny components, I did not aspire to join the ranks of the digital generation. As soon as I was old enough to get my hands on his graph paper and wrap my chubby little fingers around a pencil, my thoughts turned not to drawing diagrams but to writing silly stories.

As I matured, I fell victim to the economic reality that our society does not cheerfully subsidize aspiring writers. Like a disenfranchised aristocrat in a bygone age, I was forced to learn a trade. I soon discovered that, not surprisingly, technocrats would pay handsomely for magazine articles and books on technical subjects. The narrower the audience and the more arcane the subject, the higher the fee. Somewhere along the way in my budding career as a techno-apologist, I underwent a Kafkaesque transformation. I awoke one morning and found to my dismay that I had changed into a computer nerd.

The genesis of my evolution was my clients' petulant demands for pretty pictures to accompany their droning speeches. As my deadlines grew ever shorter through the innate impatience of my executive taskmasters, I quite naturally yearned for a technological labor-saving solution. I happened on computer-generated slide graphics at a time when it took a roomful of shiny hardware to crunch the numbers. The price of these air-conditioned electronic behemoths would sink a small conglomerate, but fortunately the technocrats had their corporate checkbooks at the ready, because they lusted after those pictures more intently even than they wanted my carefully chosen, jargon-filled prose. So I found myself the master of a big juice guzzler called a Genigraphics computer, which took many minutes and sucked half the watts out of downtown Detroit to record a single chart on a color slide, but it was a big improvement. And it marked the beginning of the end of profitability for manufacturers of graph paper.

I noticed even then that a disturbing change was taking place. In the old world of wizened artisans who labored with graph paper and the tools in their tabourets, there was time to reflect. In fact, there was a venerated ritual called a cradle review (flashback to my crib!) in which artwork pasted on cardboard panels was examined and approved by the client before the monumental expense was incurred of photographing it on color slide film. But no sooner had this Genigraphics thing got warmed up than the cherished cradle ceremony--and all other comforting mechanical rituals--disappeared in that same electronic zap! The technocrats cheered, delighting in the blinding speed of our new toy, unaware that during their excitement the god of digital imagery had stolen their understanding of their own charts.

Now that electronic microminiaturization has shrunk the Genigraphics machine to the size of a cuddly small rodent, the sagacity of the pet owners shows no signs of improving. These days, you don't need custody of a million-dollar silicon brain to do the job. Anybody with a credit card who knows the way to the local computer store can command the tools of the chartmaker's craft. It's time that I spoke out, and strongly:

These people are lying to you. They are lying to themselves. And if you are doing it, you're both getting it and giving it back. And the shame of it is that there's so little malice involved. For the most part, people don't know that they are telling shameless lies with their gorgeous, new charts. They have put their faith in the zap! Someday they will discover--perhaps not too late for the good of the planet--that their new computer god lacks a crucial skill called human judgment.

This book is offered in the sincere hope that you will save its dear price many times over by avoiding the kinds of graphical gaffes that could end up costing you or your capitalist masters big bucks. But beware. This is potent stuff. An unscrupulous person could work this magic to unfair advantage. If you unwisely choose the sinister bend in your life road, you will find no comfort here. You will be on your own through the Dark Wood of Error.

But if you desire instead to protect yourself from ruthless liars who somehow manage to lure you into their audience, rest assured that if you study these pages, their tricks will have no effect on you. I am surprised that the literati I so admire--Anne Tyler, John le Carré, Margaret Atwood, and the incomparable Peter De Vries (whose poor imitation you might have recognized by now)--have not already mined the rich lode of the deceptive chartmaker's craft as a plot device. Having reeducated myself in these dark arts in the process of writing this book, I now realize that I have a unique artistic opportunity. You see, there was this nefarious chartmaker who alone had the knowledge that the CEO was color-blind--strike that--visually challenged, colorwise. . .

  ###  

© Gerald Jones 1995 

Lying with charts is but one techno-falsehood of modern life. Another is the delusion that Windows 95 is a euphemism for "Computers Made Simple." There's an entire Website devoted to said annoyances and some not-so-quick fixes for them. And speaking of computers, some of author Gerald Jones' computer books are still in print. He's also written a play, Hypatia, about the demise of the ancient library at Alexandria.


This page was last updated on Thursday, November 3, 2005 at 5:13 AM

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