"In his seminar, he (Tufte) advocates that you view a presenter skeptically, making sure that they are a "detective" without bias rather than an "advocate" of their ideas. Tufte certainly sounds like an advocate in much of what he preaches."
Interesting. If we are an advocate of our ideas, does this mean that we necessarily lack objectivity? Is advocacy of an idea and rational objectivity impossible? Is "objective advocate" an oxymoron?
I was not at Tufte's seminar, but if in fact Prof. Tufte expressed something similar to what Mr. Edwards reports, then perhaps what Tufte is saying is that we should not let the advocacy of our ideas overwhelm our reasoning or skew the evidence we are presenting. That is, we must not let our belief about the idea obfuscate the evidence in support of that idea. Obviously Tufte recognizes that we carry around biases with us and that true objectivity is difficult to achieve. And if I remember correctly from my undergraduate days studying philosophy, Aristotle also knew that objectivity can be difficult. Aristotle, of course, put great emphasis on the importance of objective reasoning and appealing to logical argument. Maybe this is why today we are also concerned with sound logical argument, at least in most Western cultures. But Aristotle knew, too, that people are emotional creatures and that we can not ignore that fact.
Logic, emotions, ethics
Aristotle said that good rhetoric (arguments, presentations) can be broken into three separate artistic proofs: appeals to reason (logos or logic); appeals to emotions (pathos); and appeals based on the character of the speaker (ethos or ethics). The logical construction of the argument and supporting evidence, the emotional reaction of the audience, and the character of the presenter are all important elements of a successful presentation. Aristotle says, for example, that ethos and pathos are so important that if ignored the greatest logical appeal in the world could still be for naught. And while emotional appeal is necessary, Aristotle deplored the idea of using only emotional appeal to sway audiences at the exclusion of reason (and often truth, I might add).
Perhaps Tufte's concern today is that too many presentations ride on the speaker's personality or on the speaker's enthusiasm and conviction about the idea rather than on solid, logical reasoning and evidence concerning the idea. Because people are emotional, as well as logical beings, do we not need to take great care to avoid taking advantage of people's emotions? Certainly marketers — and governments too — appeal to our fears to "persuade" us to take action, usually with a great obfuscation of "the facts."
Open mindedness and objectivity are paramount. However, I think being an "advocate of an idea" does not necessarily make me incapable of objectivity. And I believe a demonstrable passion for the presentation topic is indeed something good for a presenter to possess. However, it is also true today — especially in the political arena — that emotion, conviction, and strong beliefs have replaced an open-minded exploration of the truth. And this is not a good trend at all.
Books by Edward Tufte
I highly recommend Tufte's books. Tufte's books will teach you a lot, and they will also make you question conventional wisdom about how "evidence" is displayed. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is my favorite.
Tufte has a limited seminar schedule, and charges $320 per person (including his books). $160 for students. This sounds like a pretty good deal. Wish he'd come to Japan.
If any of you have attended one of Edward Tufte's seminars, please share your thoughts. Love to hear from you.
The Tufte photo is a public image from typeweight at Flickr.