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Figures Don’t Lie, But Charts Do

10 Aug

The visual presentation of information can be an incredibly powerful tool. However, like most things, it can also be used for less than honorable purposes. For example, you can take a factually accurate bar graph, play with the axes and create some less than accurate impressions. The best visual depictions, in my opinion, are those that take a complex amount of data and present it in a much more easily digestible format. For example, a table full of numbers may be hard to make sense of until it gets turned into a linear plot over time, at which point any upward or downward trends would become easy to spot. That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s also possible to go in the wrong direction, by using graphics to confound and confuse the viewer. That’s precisely what health reform opponents have done with their flowcharts purporting to depict how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will work.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog (or many others), you’ve probably seen some of these charts already. The thing they share in common is that they communicate the idea that the new health care law is too complex and overwhelming to be understood–that it is a bureaucratic nightmare and an example of the mess that happens when government gets involved in anything. That point–whether or not it is true–is well made. The problem is, the various charts are all different–not in how they choose to present the information, mind you, but in the substantive information they present. In depicting one specific factual thing (the health care law), logic allows that there might well be multiple ways of presenting the facts visually without distorting said facts. However, three substantively different explanations of one law cannot all be correct. So, whose chart has it right and whose has it wrong? I’m guessing that the architects of the charts don’t care. They’re not actually trying to educate you about how the law works, they are simply using a visual medium to frame the issue in their favor. One wonders if men–being by nature more visually-oriented than women–are more susceptible to the influence of this type of approach at spin. Then again, the charts are crammed full of words, so maybe this is an example of equal opportunity propaganda.

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Posted by on August 10, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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