SAS Institute has been around for a long time. Founded in 1976, SAS (originally an acronym for Statistical Analysis System) became and remains to this day the dominant statistical software vendor. Today, as business intelligence (BI) vendors that know little about statistics are promoting themselves as analytics companies, SAS has taken a wrong turn in its effort to defend its status. This is especially true in regard to statistical graphics. When BI companies show their ignorance of analytics by promoting flashy graphics that look cool but are analytically impoverished, SAS is in a great position to remind the world that statistical graphics are about statistics: meanings derived from quantitative data using proven mathematical methods, which are only valuable to the degree that they are accurate and enlightening. No vendor is in a better position to promote statistical integrity than SAS. So why is SAS taking the low road—one traveled by many BI vendors—to tout its wares?
SAS is now building products that try to compete with the likes of SAP’s Xcelsius, which obscures data behind 3-D effects of light and shadow. I recently spent a day with the bright and thoughtful folks at SAS who developed the visual exploratory data analysis tool named SAS Visual Analytics, and for the life of me I couldn’t fathom why they would undermine their product with flashy nonsense that threatens the integrity and reputation that SAS has worked so hard to build. My concern grew even greater when I was recently told that SAS has on two occasions featured David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful fame as a keynote speaker at major European events.
Photo credit: Tricia Aanderud
Perhaps more than any other proponent of information graphics today, McCandless has lured fledgling practitioners of data visualization to the dark side of sloppy analysis and eye-popping displays that rob information of its clarity, accessibility, accuracy, and meaning.
Effective data visualization is informed by science: statistics and those fields that strive to understand human perception and cognition. There’s much that we can learn from other disciplines as well, including the graphic arts, but only by focusing clearly on the goal: finding, understanding, and communicating the truth that resides in data about things that matter to preserve and improve them. SAS is undermining its own work by promoting impoverished graphics and those who advocate their use. Have the reins of the company been handed to sales and marketing executives who don’t understand or value statistics? I implore my friends at SAS: “Remember who you are—if not for your own sake, for the sake of your customers.”