Saturday, August 29, 2015

Want to Spin Your Data? Here’s How: Five Ways To Lie With Charts

A chart’s purpose is usually to help you properly interpret data. But sometimes, it does just the opposite. In the right (or wrong) hands, bar graphs and pie charts can become powerful agents of deception, tricking you into inferring trends that don’t exist, mistaking less for more, and missing alarming facts. The best measure of a chart’s honesty is the amount of time it takes to interpret it, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology perceptual scientist Ruth Rosenholtz: “A bad chart requires more cognitive processes and more reasoning about what you’ve seen.”

It helps to know the kinds of tricks that charts can try to pull. Here are five.

Puzzling Perspective
Both of these pie charts show “labor” taking up 30 percent of some total. But you probably noticed that the chart on the right makes the labor slice look a lot bigger by positioning it in the foreground, which gives it a thick 3D edge and more than double the number of dark blue pixels than when it’s in the background.

Human vision isn’t very good at interpreting the third dimension, says Rosenholtz. When confronted with a 3D chart, we assume that more color indicates a greater amount. So when more pixels are used to represent one slice of a pie chart, the slice appears more significant, Rosenholtz says. That’s why we can assign a greater value to foreground slices in 3D pie charts.

Swindling Shapes
A classic way to lie with a chart is to introduce irrelevant information. In the chart on the right, the only relevant property is cone height. But, while the cone volume is irrelevant, it is also very difficult to ignore, encouraging us to assign a greater value to the larger part of the cone.

In both charts, administrative costs take almost a third of each dollar. While this matches reasonably with the left chart, the right chart seems to shrink administrative costs to something much less than a third. “Anytime you ask anyone to judge just height and ignore the other measurements,” says Rosenholtz, “it’s going to take extra cognitive load to disregard these other cues.”...MORE 
Or, you could go with the approach highlighted by the Columbia Journalism Review: