Ars Technica notes that famed anti-PowerPoint communications guru Edward Tufte is getting some sort of job consulting for the Obama Administration. In passing, they point to one of Tufte's online essays, PowerPoint Does Rocket Science.

I shouldn't be surprised by this, but really, I'm stunned: Tufte notes that, in order to assess the threat to the Space Shuttle Columbia while it was still orbiting, NASA and Boeing engineers prepared reports in the form of PowerPoint slides. Only in the form of PowerPoint slides: there were no technical reports.

In response to these reports, NASA managers, just as they had done in 1986, underestimated the risk and declared the Space Shuttle safe. And of course shortly thereafter the Columbia burned up on its descent back to earth.

NASA engineers put safety reports in the form of PowerPoint slides? Seriously? What happened to written reports? It should be obvious that PowerPoint is intended to accompany oral presentations, not serve as a medium for written reports on anything more technical or serious than the minutes of the last PTO meeting.

Are the Space Shuttle program managers too stupid to read and comprehend a regular written report? Of course not. So why are they dumbing down the communications process with PowerPoint? I'm with Tufte on this issue: PowerPoint is not only an inefficient way of conveying information; it's downright misleading. People think much more information is being communicated than is really the case.

Tufte quotes from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board:

As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information are filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.

PowerPoint is making us much dumber than we need to be.

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