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The Black Hole

A quick Thanksgiving post on bad graphs

BY BETH | OCT 11 2011

I’m full of Thanksgiving dinner, so today’s posting is going to be a quick one!

A friend of mine recently passed along this paper to me, as she thought it might be a useful tool in teaching research methods/statistics: Graphs for Dummies: The Troubled Geometry of Tim Hudak’s “changebook” by Jim Stanford. This paper from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives critiques the graphs included in a document that was put out by the Ontario Conservative party in advance of the recent Ontario provincial election, finding fault with all 13 graphs in the document, including such issues as inconsistent scaling that made differences look bigger than they actually were, inaccurate labeling that misleads the reader, and even cases were the data presented are false. The author compares this report to “The Common Sense Revolution” document produced by the Ontario Conservative party back in 1995, which the authors notes “reflected a sober, empirically validated quantitative presentation.”

For me this brought up the importance of having a well-educated population who think critically about what is presented to them. How many people who read the “changebook” document thought to question its presentation of data and how many accepted the graphs at face value? How many times have I looked at a graph (even on something important, like a document that’s meant to influence who I vote for) and not taken the time to check it for accuracy and appropriate presentation? The basics of creating and reading graphs is something that should be covered in elementary school, but given the pleothera of bad infographics one sees, it makes one wonder how many people remember those early lessons.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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