The wrong way to make political – or any – decisions

The Morrison Government’s decision-making is about to get worse – if that’s possible – as Cabinet submissions are apparently to be replaced by PowerPoint presentations.

Presumably the full Cabinet submissions will be available and a few Ministers may read them but the reality is that the use of PowerPoint (PP) will discourage the rest from even attempting to read the executive summary.

There are no doubt people from around the world who have been spared PP presentations – those without electricity for instance – but the ubiquity of mobile phones may mean even they can have a link to a presentation sent to them.

But for the rest us who have suffered through being stuck in a semi-darkened room while: the presenter struggles to find the correct presentation on their laptop; then reads off every point on every slide; we puzzle to make out what is being communicated in another slide packed with lots of information in smallish print; and, goggle at poorly chosen and distracting decorative features adorning the slides.

It is very possible that all of the above will be true for Cabinet submissions as many of the Morrison Cabinet Ministers probably can’t produce a PP presentation without assistance. So the task will be delegated to someone in their office (after all you can’t trust public servants) who will be more concerned with the optics and the marketing than the robustness of the content.

One of the world’s foremost experts on the visual display of quantitative information, Edward R.Tufte, sought to illuminate the problem with using PP presentations in a pamphlet – The Cognitive Style of Power Point: Pitching Out Corrupts Within – which highlights the sort of mistakes these staff will inevitably make.

Tufte introduces the pamphlet by stating that he “produces evidence that compares PP with alternative methods of presenting evidence…..which indicates that PP, compared to other presentation tools, reduces the analytical quality of serious presentations of evidence. This is especially the case for the PP ready-made templates, which corrupt statistical reasoning, and often weaken verbal and spatial thinking.”

If you think this is just polemic he provides 10 case studies; a random selection of 2,000 PP slides and 32 control samples from non-PP presentations.

One of the case studies is the January 2003 spaceflight of shuttle Columbia. Shortly after lift-off a 760gms piece of foam insulation broke off and left a hole in the wing. Two weeks later – on re-entry- Columbia burned up because of the damage to the thermal protection this precipitated killing all the crew.

Many enquiries were held afterwards and one found that before that re-entry an analysis – presented in 28 PP slides – was made which was generally optimistic although some lower level bullet points (if there is anyone who has not seen a PP presentation they ought to check out what that means) were more doubtful and uncertain than the highlighted executive summaries and big-bullet conclusions. It is easy to envisage a Morrison Government making exactly the same mistake.

Tufte provides other examples – some tragic such as misleading presentations on cancer risk – and a terrific parody of what Lincoln’s Gettysburg address would have been like as a PP presentation in his pamphlet. He also analyses some PP style sheets provided by presenters – including one for the Harvard School of Health from the “Instructional Computing Facility” which he describes as “a PP witless pitch on how to make a witless PP pitch….uninformed by the practices of scientific publication and the rich intellectual history of evidence and analysis in public health.”

Scott Morrison, however, would love it because on the third template slide the “Facility” has introduced a slight nod to good humour and camaraderie with the notation “What about them Sox hey?” No doubt all Cabinet Ministers will follow suit and start to sprinkle PP presentations with Go Sharks, haveagotogetago and other uplifting sidelights such as when to draw on the power of prayer.

Tufte’s essential point is that PP in the Columbia situation was not some neutral tool but a thing with a particular cognitive style which reinforces the hierarchical filtering and biases of the NASA bureaucracy – or indeed any other bureaucracy.

In Australia one can foresee how it will exacerbate exactly the same situation in a Morrison Government hardly renowned for original thinking, challenging conventional wisdom or developing well thought out implementation plans which pay as much attention to subtle social and economic realities as marketing cant and blinkered ideological thinking.

And as for the wider political implications Tufte contrasts Orwell’s words in Politics and the English Language, “The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”, with a PP version: “PowerPoint becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish but the slovenliness of Power Point makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” And that’s the last thing the Morrison Government needs – more foolish thoughts.

Edward R. Tufte is an American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University.

Perhaps his best-known book is the stunning The Visual Display of Quantitative Information which covers graphical practice and the theory of data graphics. It includes many examples of best practice including the wonderful graphic depiction of Napoleon’s Russian campaign and retreat. All his books, pamphlets, art work and posters are available on his website.

Perhaps someone in the PM’s office might order some copies of both the book and the pamphlet before some hapless Ministers like Angus Taylor, Michael McCormack and their staff start following his directive.