Space Shuttle ColumbiaIn January 2003, the space shuttle Columbia took off on what seemed to be a routine mission. But 16 days later, the flight came to a tragic end as the shuttle broke apart on re-entry, killing all seven aboard.

One unlikely contributor to the disaster? PowerPoint. At least that's the conclusion drawn by some researchers who studied the sequence of events leading to the disaster.

According to Yale professor and analytical design expert Edward Tufte, PhD, when NASA engineers learned that a piece of insulation had broken off the orbiter, they reviewed PowerPoint slides prepared by a contractor and concluded that the damage was minimal and that further investigation was unnecessary. That fatal decision may have been in part due to the fact that PowerPoint oversimplifies complex information, says Martin Kemp, an emeritus professor and data visualization expert at Oxford University.

"PowerPoint is set up to rap out a set of indisputable knowns, not least through its modes of visual presentation," says Kemp, adding that the software often creates "high-tech presentations which tend to grant spurious levels of absolute authority to the presenters."

The take-home message for students and scientists? Use PowerPoint in classrooms or conferences to provide an overview of a topic or a gloss on your research findings. But if you need to hash out details — such as deciding on fine statistical procedures with your research team — the software may lead to bad conclusions and overconfidence, says Cherie Kerr, author of "Death by PowerPoint: How to Avoid Killing Your Presentation and Sucking the Life Out of Your Audience" (2002).

"PowerPoint should never be used as the go-to source for critical decision-making," she says. "It is the backdrop, not the end-all reference for technical information."

—M. Rowh

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