PowerPoint Kills

Realized today that I seem to have never posted on this subject before. An unforgivable oversight for which I apologize. Links and stuff after the jump.

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

— Richard Feynman

It all begins with Richard Feynman’s memoir, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, where the late scientist wrote this about the fateful engineering presentations made by engineers to convince contractor and NASA executives to delay the launch of shuttle Challenger:

We looked at the summary of the report. Everything was behind little bullets, as usual. The top line says:

“The lack of a good secondary seal in the field joint is most critical and ways to reduce joint rotation should be incorporated as soon as possible to reduce criticality.”

And then, near the bottom, it says:

“Analysis of existing data indicates that it is safe to continue flying existing design as long as all joints are leak checked with a 200 psig stabilization . . .”

I was struck by the contradiction: “If it’s ‘most critical,’ how could it be ’safe to continue flying’? What’s the logic of this?”

In the quintessential essay by Dr. Edward Tufte,
PowerPoint Does Rocket Science, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board member comments:

The language, spirit and presentation tool of the pitch culture had penetrated throughout the NASA organization, even into the most serious technical analysis, the survival of the shuttle.

And here’s the opening to an overview by ZDNet’s Robin Harris, Death by PowerPoint, that cites Tufte’s The Congnitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, among other sources:

Implicated in 2 space shuttle disasters. Banned by a combat commander in Iraq. Making sense of our collected and stored information is hard enough. Does PowerPoint thinking make it harder?

The New York Times quotes Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis: “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” And Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the fight to secure the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.

The answer of Microsoft and others to all this has been along the lines of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, which although technically correct skirts the issue. A more constructive approach might be something like, “Who in their right mind would use PowerPoint to present the facts needed for a life-or-death decision? I mean, it isn’t like all that was at stake there was shareholder’s money!”