Cautionary Tales – Florence Nightingale and her Geeks Declare War on Death

3rd March, 2021

Victorian nurse Florence Nightingale (played by her distant cousin Helena Bonham Carter) is a hero of modern medicine – but her greatest contribution to combating disease and death resulted from the vivid graphs she made to back her public health campaigns.

Her charts convinced the great and the good that deaths due to filth and poor sanitation could be averted – saving countless lives. But did Nightingale open Pandora’s Box, showing that graphs persuade, whether or not they depict reality?

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

I discussed the remarkable legacy of Florence Nightingale and the perils of misinformation in my new book The Data Detective (US/Canada) / How To Make The World Add Up (UK / International).

Key sources on the life of Florence Nightingale include Mark Bostridge Florence Nightingale, Lynn McDonald (ed) The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale Vol 14, and Orlando Figes Crimea.

On the interpretation and history of the rose diagram I recommend Hugh Small’s October 2010 paper presented to the Royal Statistical Society and his essay “Nightingale’s Hockey Stick“, Lee Brasseur’s “Florence Nightingale’s Visual Rhetoric in the Rose Diagrams” Technical Communications Quarterly 14(2) 2005, RJ Andrews “Florence Nightingale is a Design Hero” and the collection of essays published in Significance Magazine, April 2020.

The study measuring our rapid reaction to infographics is Lane Harrison  et al Infographic Aesthetics: Designing for the First Impression; Proc. ACM Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), 2015

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