Mind Matters

by Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 308
August 17, 1998

Statistical Imagination

It took my breath away: linear bands, snaking across the page from left to right and then from right to left. Before my eyes lines became people and the loss of human life staggered me. I was reading the book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information which contained French engineer Charles Joseph Minard's 1861 graphic of the terrible fate of Napoleon's army in Russia.

The chart began with a broad tan band, representing 422,000 soldiers who marched in June 1812 from the Polish border. The band narrowed to less than half its original width as the army reached Moscow in September. Then the narrowed black band moved from right to left, displaying Napoleon's diminished retreating army arriving back in Poland in December with 10,000 men, or 2% of the original army. (One place where the thinning black band abruptly narrows to a fine line is at the Berezina River where over half the extant army was killed or captured).

That chart has changed how I read the numbers of war dead in history books. No longer do I only see numbers on a page and allow my eye to smoothly slide into subsequent narrative. I now find my imagination turning numbers into human beings, each seen as a part of a network of family and friends. Then I think, too, of those not shown: the Russians soldiers killed and the peasants slaughtered.

This statistical graphic somewhat prepared me for another graphic display a century later. It was at the Vietnam Memorial, in Washington, D.C., that I found the same overwhelming sense of war's abstraction turning into the real lives of individual human beings.

Joseph Stalin said that "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." It took a nineteenth-century statistical graphic to break my numbing surrender to a once unimaginable magnitude.

--Robert H. Tucker
17 August 1998


© Robert H. Tucker, 1998.
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