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Making data make sense

Notes about the book listings

The following book listings contain links to Amazon.com. Wherever Amazon had no picture for the book cover, we have used a generic icon:
The icon will still take you directly to the Amazon.com listing for the
particular book.

We hope you find this listings helpful. If you have suggestions for other books you think should be listed here, please feel free to send them to us at:


Statistics (General)

How to Lie with Statistics
by Darrell Huff, W. W. Norton and Company, 1954.

This is it, the one book no data analyst should be without, ever. We're glad to see it back on the shelves. Huff's book set the standard for commonsense discussions of data analysis and interpretation and is engagingly written and delightfully illustrated. If you read only one book about data analysis, this should be the one.

Making Sense of Data: A Self-Instruction Manual on the Interpretation of Epidemiologic Data
by J. H. Abramson

Perhaps some of the best training data around comes from epidemiology, apart from being a fascinating subject in its own right. Abramson provides different types of data, different investigation and problem scenarios, and exercises.

Charts and Graphs

How to Lie with Charts

by Gerald E. Jones, Sybex, 1995.

(Note: no relation to Huff's book)
Jones has presented an excellent discussion of the science of visual presentation of data. It broke our hearts to see this book come out, because it was the one we were planning to write. Having read it, however, we doubt we could have done a better job. Jones addresses fundamental issues of visual perception in a style that is clear, concise, and amusing. His charts are excellent examples of how to present data. If you read only two books about data analysis, make this the second one.

The Elements of Graphing Data
by William S. Cleveland, Wadsworth, 1985.

Bell Labs holds the copyright on this one, so you're right in assuming that it's a fairly advanced book on data analysis. Beginning on page 100, however, it has some excellent general rules for charting data.

The Data Handbook: A Guide to Understanding the Organization and Visualization of Technical Data.
by Brand Fortner, Spyglass, 1992.

Moderately advanced, with heavy emphasis on the file structure of data within the computer, this book has some valuable discussions of the problems of data analysis, including one of our favorites, the rounding problem (see page 48 of the 1992 edition). We once rounded service fees charged by the hour to the nearest penny, projected over five thousand families over a three-year period, and ended up with a quarter-million dollar error, so we know whereof he speaks. (Note: this book is currently out-of-stock at Amazon.com. You might check back periodically to see if it's back. Failing that, check your local university library or library loan program.)

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
by Edward R. Tufte, Graphics Press, 1983. Price: $40 U.S, includes shipping and handling on prepaid orders. Available from Amazon.com or contact: Graphics Press, Box 430, Chesire, Connecticut, 06410 USA. Telephone: 800-822-2454.

This is the book that started all the new excitement about graphing data, and it's well worth the money. You'll have to order it directly from Graphics Press, as Tufte publishes it himself to ensure quality. He has taken care to restore the art of printed information in this and his subsequent book, Envisioning Information (below), from the design to supervision of the paper selection and type-setting. Yes, it's true, the book is actually set in cold type, which means it's crisp and clear and beautiful. But the importance of the book lies in what Tufte has to say about visual communication and clear thinking and the link between the two.

Tufte makes compelling arguments for stripping away the all non-data elements from charts and graphs with examples like "The Incredible Shrinking Doctor," self-promoting graphics he has dubbed "ducks" after a duck-shaped building, and the various manifestations of the phenomenon he has named "chart junk." Tufte argues for a cleaner, clearer aesthetic that focuses on data rather than dazzle. After reading this, the charts in USA Today may make you feel claustrophobic.

Envisioning Information: Narratives of Space and Time
by Edward R. Tufte, Graphics Press, 1990. Price: $48 U.S, includes shipping and handling on prepaid orders. For ordering information, see above, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Ten years after Visual Display..., Tufte returns to his theme of stripping away the chart junk to reveal the data. This time he moves into the third dimension as he discusses "Escaping Flatland," and argues for a more distinctive method of comparison in "Small Multiples." We use Tufte's methods whenever we can and find that our charts and analyses are always the better for them.

Doing Science

Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, A Massive Cover-Up, and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo
by John Crewdson

Science Fictions
is an extraordinary work exploring the scientific, legal, and political issues surrounding the controversy of the discovery of the AIDS virus. At once detective story, scientific morality play, and political thriller, Science Fictions captures the anguish, comedy, and pathos involved in the dispute between the French and two Republican administrations who refused to approve the French AIDS test because it was unAmerican and because doing so would result in lost profits to American companies. The problem was, the American test wasn't very good. Producing a high rate of false positives and an even more troubling rate of false negatives, the test both excluded uninfected donors and included infected donors, and blood recipients contracted AIDS as a result. Bad data can kill, and Science Fictions provides a meticulous account of how bad data and bad science became accepted and entrenched dogma. 

In an unusual step, Mr. Crewdson has established a web site (www.sciencefictions.net, click Citations)  that contains more than two-hundred-fifty documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents can be read in Acrobat Reader and provide a fascinating look into the inner workings of scientific discovery and political cover-up.

Design: The Art of Visual Persuasion

Sooner or later, you're going to have to present your findings and conclusions, in an article, a report, a book, overheads, slides, whatever. Unless you have your own design firm and printer, you'd do well to know a little something about design and layout. We love design books and spend hours pouring over them for new ideas. A few hints:

  • Keep a scrapbook of designs and styles you like.
  • Don't ignore the magazines. Check out Graphic Design and Design World, from Australia, and the excellent, if expensive, Print magazine.
  • Watch the catalogs from places like The Image Club (now owned by Adobe) and Paper Direct (which also publishes Technique magazine).
  • Don't leave the room during advertisements. People who spend a lot of money think these things can persuade you to part with your hard-earned money. Some of the most creative talent around produces them. Okay, and some of the worst. Right now, watch for the orange-juice drinking fly. It's our bet for the next Clio.
  • Remember, design is everywhere and it's main purpose is persuasion. You can learn from everything.

Bearing in mind, then, that the shape of information is information itself, we offer the following suggestions to help you "shape up" your presentations.We hope you find them useful.

The Non-Designer's Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice
by Robin Williams, Peachpit Press, 1994. About $15 US. Peachpit Press, Inc. 2414 Sixth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710. Tel: (510) 548-4393. Fax: (510) 548-5991.

Robin Williams has long been one of our favorite authors, ever since she wrote The Little Mac Book and The Mac is Not a Typewriter. Here she offers good, solid design advice that even the most non-visual person (we speak from experience) can learn from. Her style is light and bright and sparkling, and her quotations from Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, by Howard L. Chace, never fail to please. If you read only one design book.......

One Minute Designer

by Roger C. Parker, Que, 1993. About $20 US.

Parker's book is certainly one of the better ones for us average non-designers. It's well laid-out, presents excellent examples of each precept, and offers its instruction in clear, concrete terms ("Use subheads to break up long text passages").

The Design of Everyday Things (formerly, The Psychology of Everyday Things)
by Donald A. Norman, Basic Books, 1988. About $25 U.S.

From door handles to computer interfaces, Donald Norman's book is a fascinating exploration of the subtleties of design and how they shape, for good or ill, our actions and our understanding. Just for good measure, check out Norman's CD-ROM from Voyager.