Untangling charts

August 6, 2009 in Data,Politics

House Minority Leader Boehner recently released this "infographic" (I use the term loosely) in order to demonstrate his frustration with the House Democrats's heath proposal:

The chart really is an absolute nightmare: the colors, layout, and hidden connections contribute to an absolutely impossible-to-read image, which is exactly what Rep Boehner wants.

Recently, Robert Palmer, a graphic designer in California, took it upon himself to untangle this mess. Here is his version of the chart (click to zoom):

Now, neither chart makes a strong case for or against the policy itself; both attempt merely to show all the affected parties. But the fact that Robert Palmer was able to lay out an extraordinarily clear picture of all participants demonstrates that Rep. Boehner's chart was intentionally obfuscated in order to mislead and confuse. The only other explanations are that whoever put it together a) didn't understand the layout or b) didn't understand how to present it. Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss.

When we are handed data or statistics, we have an enormous power to construct convincing arguments and clear presentations of otherwise complicated ideas. To abuse those tools (and the public's faith in those tools) by using them to construct a bad analysis is a poor policy choice - not only is it easily falsifiable, but it erodes the ability to effectively communicate at all.

Lies, damn lies and statistics... the two charts above claim to show the exact same situation. Undoubtedly, there are many more graphics that could be constructed - are any of them actually "right"? Hard to say, but I feel that the first chart is "wrong" without question because it breaks every rule of effective design. The tax may well be a beaurocratic nightmare, as Rep. Boehner claims. And Palmer's chart does not show a lack of bureaucracy, it merely lays out the connections clearly. But by constructing a graphic which willfully corrupts its own message, Rep. Boehner undermines his argument: if his chart shows a tangled mess but Palmer can untangle it, then the public will conclude that Boehner was wrong. He would have done better to have shown Palmer's chart in the first place and claim that there are too many connections on it - that way any refute would live only in the realm of opinion, not demonstrable fact.

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