When JFK ruled the Smoker Committee

And more highlights from the Ideas blog

John F. Kennedy (center), the chair of the Smoker Committee
John F. Kennedy (center), the chair of the Smoker Committee(Harvard archives)

Today, any college kid who thinks he might one day run for president is probably not looking to create ties with the tobacco industry. But as a Harvard undergraduate, John F. Kennedy chose the smoking field as one place to show off his already considerable leadership talents. The Harvard University Archives has a number of images from Kennedy’s freshman year, including one of the future president as chair of the Smoker Committee, which each year planned a tobacco-themed party for freshmen. Kennedy’s party was held in May 1937 at Memorial Hall on the Harvard campus, with tobacco and cigarettes supplied by Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., appearances by baseball stars Frankie Frisch and Dizzy Dean, and two performances by The Dancing Rhythmettes. In the Smoker Committee picture, Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago this week, has better posture and a more serious expression than any of his peers, as if he’d already moved on to a bigger stage.



There’s been a lot written about how to present data clearly, but less about a more basic point: How do you get people to remember that they ever even saw your graphic? Michelle Borkin, a graduate student at Harvard, recently published results of a nifty experiment that measured the memorability of different ways of presenting data. Borkin collected 2,070 data visualizations—bar charts, tables, diagrams, maps, etc—and used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to test how well people could recall having seen each one. Study participants watched as data visualizations flashed across their computer screens, and they pressed a key every time they saw a visualization they’d seen before. The most memorable visualizations contained “human recognizable objects,” were of a distinct type, and were colorful, with a low data-to-ink ratio. The least memorable visualizations were your garden variety bar charts, line graphs, and tables. All of this adds up to at least partial validation of the ongoing infographic craze, but as Borkin notes, memorability and effective data presentation are not the same thing: It’s possible, for example, to remember that you saw a graphic featuring a Tyrannosaurus, without being able to recall tomorrow how many bones it had in its body.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at