Alberto Cairo – The truthful art (review)

by Ben Davis

In a world where everyone has access to large quantities of public data and visualisation software, the democratisation of data journalism and related practices is largely a positive thing. However, alongside this we see the emergence of people misusing data and charts, or even abusing them for more insidious means.

Rather than provide a guide to best practices in visualising the data per se, The Truthful Art stands out from much of the data visualisation literature by training the reader to think more deeply about the validity of the data they are presenting, as well as the most effective means of presenting it. At its core is an introduction to principles that will help you select, vet, and visualise the data reliably, robustly, and meaningfully.

The book is laden with tips on how to avoid falling into common data traps. Are you slicing and dicing your data in the right way to address your question of interest? Are you perceiving your correlations correctly? Can you justifiably claim causality? As well as asking and addressing these questions of your own data, reading this book will also train you to perceive others work with a more discernible critical eye.

Many of the principles and techniques Cairo introduces were familiar to me from my science training, including sections on analysing distributions, uncertainty, statistical significance, and data transformation. However, I still found it useful as a recap, and benefited from seeing the same principles I previously encountered in mundane lectures or tucked away in fusty text books, presented with such clarity and verve. In the context of journalistic endeavours and ‘data puzzles’ Cairo has brought the world of statistics and analytics to life!

Cairo writes for a varied audience and presents complex concepts in relatable terms. He doesn’t get bogged down in jargon, and his journalistic examples along the way help explain and re-enforce the utility of the approaches he champions through the chapters. He clearly has a passion for the subject and this radiates out of the pages.