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Representation and Misrepresentation: Tufte and the Morton Thiokol Engineers on the Challenger

Even if this paper is gaining in age – it was written 11 years ago and revised half a year later – it is still very interesting to read for anyone in the infographics field.

The paper is a bit long (81 pages), but in short it tells you how difficult it is to get your story right. Even if you’re the infographics guru, Edward Tufte, and you publish your story in your own book, Visual Explanations.

In his book Tufte quite strongly argues about the incompetent engineers’ role in the space shuttle Challenger-disaster. His argument has gone on to become a classic in the infographics literature – and as far as I know also in Tuftes seminars, where he recruits new disciples for his visual thinking on a regular basis.

Strangely enough it was only recently, that I found this paper – maybe it has become a classic outside the infographic circles – or maybe it has just vanished, because it can also be read as a rather desperate attempt to save the honour of the engineers. But they have a point – and they use stronger-than-usual language for a scientific paper, so I recommend you read it.

A few bits from the final conclusions:

Tufte has taken, as it were, a God’s eye view of the data, faulting the engineers for providing only a few temperature data points and not properly connecting those with the known effect. …

It would, of course, be wrong to criticize Tufte’s analysis had he tried to obtain the information about what the engineers knew, but could not for reasons beyond his control. However, as we have noted, all the information cited herein was available to Tufte had he sought it.

See? quite a bash – and you can download the pdf of the paper right here.