In response to an item last week about regional sources of imported oil, @jesperfj wrote:

Not sure what to conclude? Do informed people like Udell really not know that?

I really didn’t. And the reaction to the item, plus my survey of friends and associates, tells me that while some informed people did, many did not.

From this, I know exactly what to conclude. Like all complex systems, our civilization is buggy. We need many eyes to make the bugs shallow, and there all kinds of things that the brains behind those eyes can’t know a priori. But with the right kinds of mental prosthetics, we can learn rapidly and bootstrap ourselves into a position to reason effectively.

Data visualization is a crucially important mental prosthetic. But we’ve yet to evolve it much beyond the graphical equivalent of the wooden leg.

Consider this chart:

It’s a somewhat useful way to visualize the fact — counter-intuitive for many — that the Middle East ranks only third among suppliers of oil to the U.S. But here is a much more useful way to visualize the fact — intuitive for everyone — that the Middle East is where most of the world’s oil reserves exist:

What do you call this kind of projection, where country size is proportional to a variable? It’s the sort of wickedly effective graphical device that we should all want to be able to deploy, at a moment’s notice and with minimal effort, in order to make sense of data and reason about the world.

Like Tim Bray, I’m angry about “the financial professionals who paid themselves millions for driving the economy into a brick wall at high speed, then walked away while we pick up the pieces.” But I’m also angry at myself for visualizing, way too late, along with the rest of us, the magnitude of the giant pool of money and its constituent flows.

We could have seen more, seen better, and seen sooner. In many domains, as we go forward, we will have to.