A Bullet Too Far

Click to read NY Times article

The New York Times today published a compelling report of critiques of the use of Powerpoint in the military (hat tip to Roshan), with this arresting picture above the fold. The caption reports Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s wry remark, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

The story became the #1 e-mailed article, which raises the question of whether people are amused by the slide or dissatisfied with Powerpoint–or both.   The article quotes Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who has banned PowerPoint from his briefings. “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

This kind of critique certainly prompts reflection on the value of Powerpoint in teaching.

Some years ago, graphic information guru Edward Tufte published a book called “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint,” in which he lambasted the ways in which Powerpoint helps presenters cover up conceptual vaguaries rather than communicating clear thinking.  An example from the book is reproduced below, in which he details how

Click to enlarge

engineers at NASA presented results of an analysis of possible damage to space shuttle Columbia upon takeoff.  The test results were poorly presented in Powerpoint and, possibly as a result, misinterpreted.  Tufte, too, takes issue with the bullets of powerpoint, but the real problem may be the ellipsis of meaning that is necessary to cram thoughts onto a slide.  Among the problems were:

  • the use of the word “significant” (or “significantly”) 5 times on one slide, each time with a different meaning, and never with the meaning of p<0.05;
  • use of the word “it” to stand in for “catastrophic damage.” (“Test results do show that it is possible at sufficient mass and velocity.”);
  • elision of confidence intervals or error bounds around the test result point estimates; and
  • sublimation of the fact that the test conducted was so unlike the circumstances facing the Columbia as to be irrelevant.

A few days later, the Columbia blew up upon reentry.

Which brings us back to the military slide at the top of the post.  It is much easier to mock the complexity of this slide than it is to communicate subtlety and complexity within Powerpoint.

We can’t blame Powerpoint for all of these problems, but it seems clear that, whether because of the bullets or because of the short phrases or because of the illusion of power and control, Powerpoint shapes and structures the way we present, and therefore also the way we think.  And that should be a point to dwell on.

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