Not only out of professional necessity but also to satisfy my personal intellectual curiosity I follow the ongoing discussion on the visual display of quantitative information. Cleveland and Tufte are certainly the authors who influenced me the most when it comes to design a data display. So, of course, I ordered and read Howard Wainer’s Picturing the Uncertain World.
It is not quite what I expected. Though the consequences of uncertainty and the dangers of neglecting uncertainty are discussed, the book is not really focused on how to provide visual displays that capture and communicate the uncertainty in the data. Just one out of 21 chapter is explicitly addressing this topic. The other 20 chapters provide a wonderful narrative on the development of effective data displays and possible pitfalls. And this narrative is what makes the book worthwhile. Wainer provides an almost complete genesis of several (historical) examples of effective data displays. These little stories are both informative and entertaining. Consequently the book is not just about data displays, it is about the history of good data displays. A fact that is not conveyed by the book’s title, so that I was at first led to expect something slightly different.
Yet, I can wholeheartedly recommend this little practical guide. Wainer’s style is witty, entertaining, and instructive. The book is nicely typeset, a feature it shares with the works of Tufte. And finally, by providing a genesis of effective data displays the book certainly can teach more than by just providing examples of good and bad graphical illustrations. It shapes the way one might think about the data, and it reminds the reader that the same data can and has to be presented in different ways to address different specific problems.