In his 2006 analysis entitled The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Edward Tufte, a Yale University professor and influential expert on the presentation of visual information, assesses the quality and credibility of a NASA Powerpoint report that might have had deadly consequences for the January 2003 spaceflight of the space shuttle Columbia.
At the beginning of his analysis, entitled “PowerPoint Does Rocket Science–and Better Techniques for Technical Reports,” Tufte notes that “Nearly all engineering presentations at NASA are made in Powerpoint,” and he poses the following questions:
- Is this a product endorsement or a big mistake?
- Does PP’s cognitive style affect the quality of engineering analysis?
- How does PP compare with alternative methods of technical presentation?
After carefully examining the presentation of data and recommendations in one of NASA’s PP slides, Tufte comes to the following conclusions:
“Serious problems require a serious tool: written reports.”
Tufte’s case study and analysis of the Columbia Powerpoint slide was included in the final report of Columbia Accident Investigation Board. In its report, the board made these observations:
At many points in its investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA official in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.
This criticism raises such questions as, “if NASA had used a better communication tool, would different decisions have been made and the crew saved?” A September 2003 Congressional Research Service report concludes that “the two options for returning the crew safely if the degree of damage had been understood early in the mission” would have been “high risk” and “challenging” but “feasible” (p. 3).