The 1951 paperback Facts From Figures by M. J. Moroney surfaced again the other day at home. Probably we found it long ago, outside the local library used-book sale, among heaps of chaff in the giveaway pre-dumpster bin. For the first time I opened it ... and to my surprise discovered a delightful "tour of the statistician's workshop", as the author put it.

In light of recent stock market inanities, financial scandals and bookkeeping excesses, the introductory words of Chapter 3 ("The Magic Lantern Technique") are of special relevance, especially the footnote "*Most readers will be aware that skill is not infrequently used to hide the moral truth in balance sheets while obeying to the letter the laws of accountancy.". The body of the text reads:

Very few people can look at a balance sheet and get a quick idea of what it is all about --- yet a good* balance sheet is laid out in nice orderly fashion to make it as comprehensible as possible. A balance sheet is a summary drawn up to show the overall state of affairs brought about by a large number of transactions. Most people look at a balance sheet, note in amazement that it does balance, and look for the balance in hand. Beyond that they do not venture. Yet the balance sheet tells a story, if only we have the skill to bring it to life. An income tax officer, looking at a balance sheet, sees it, not as a list of figures which must be accepted as they stand, but as a story whose verisimilitude it is his duty to assess. He sees just how the various items of expense are related to each other. He asks himself whether this is a reasonable story, and whether the various items have a likely-looking magnitude, both absolutely and in relation to the other items in the statement. He seizes on doubtful-looking points and asks for explanations. He looks at the balance sheet from many points of view --- always asking the question: 'Does this make sense?'. While it is true that there is a certain amount of gift about it, it is also true that skill can be acquired by practice.

In the next paragraph Moroney turns to the key theme of how graphics can bring numerical results to life, and thereby catalyze thought:

Cold figures are uninspiring to most people. Diagrams help us to see the pattern and shape of any complex situation. Just as a map gives us a bird's-eye view of a wide stretch of country, so diagrams help us to visualize the whole meaning of a numerical complex at a single glance. Give me an undigested heap of figures and I cannot see the wood for the trees. Give me a diagram and I am positively encouraged to forget detail until I have a real grasp of the overall picture. Diagrams register a meaningful impression almost before we think.

(see TufteThoughts, 18 Dec 2000)

TopicScience - TopicLiterature - 2002-03-17

(correlates: DavidCopperfieldInFashion, EaseOfUse, ToastyOvaries, ...)