This One Chart Perfectly Sums Up Why Most Posts That Start This Way Are Total Lies!!!
How many times have you heard this line before? “This one graph perfectly sums up the current plight of Millenials!” “This one chart shows everything about global warming in a nutshell!” It’s one of the more common clickbait articles, but as a data science professional and Edward Tufte fan, I just can’t take it anymore. I decided I’d make my own graph explaining this.
In a nutshell, here’s how it works:
Basically, the more that a chart claims it can explain the totality of a situation, the greater amount of fecal content that the claim contains. (Fecal content, of course, is better known by its more common name, “bullshit”.)
I make this claim primarily because, despite their clickbait titles, when you actually go to an article that starts out claiming that one chart explains everything, you find a lengthy article surrounding the chart, explaining the chart, and giving context to the chart. It generally gives you a bunch of nominally-causal information that isn’t itself included on the chart. In short, the chart doesn’t explain everything about the situation.
A good graph or chart helps us to understand data by presenting it visually. I was fortunate to take a course from the aforementioned Edward Tufte in June 2013, and I wrote down this quote from his presentation: “The guiding principles of analytical thought are the fundamental principles of design. We display quantitative information visually to aid in thinking.” That last part should hit home to anyone who considers themselves a reasonable and intelligent person. We display quantitative information visually to aid in thinking. Not to win arguments, or to score points in some debate – but to aid in thinking.
Not only do the clickbait articles of this type blatantly lie about the ability of the chart to explain everything, they subsequently fail to use the graphical display of information for its primary use: to aid people in reasoning. Instead, they present the chart and a narrative that surrounds the chart, with a goal of either convincing people or reinforcing their existing beliefs. Tufte had another great quote, from a Tweet he sent out about a year ago: “Good statistical analysis seeks to calm down the rage to conclude.” Any post that starts with “Everything about X explained in one chart!” is doing the opposite of calming the rage to conclude. It is fanning the flames of said rage – encouraging us to conclude, rather than calming the rage to conclude. Such posts play to the tendency of all people to read our own desired conclusions into the data.
Most people are fundamentally uncomfortable with the fact that most things have more than one cause. It goes against the simple narratives that we like to use to make sense of the world. The reality is that almost nothing we encounter in everyday life can be explained by a single cause. Crime? A complex interaction of racial prejudice, social structures, financial incentives, and personal actions. Terrorism? A tangled web of religious motives, economic realities, and geopolitical events. The economy? A system of millions of independent actors, shaped by events both local and global, and pushed and prodded by governments and corporations alike.
Einstein once said, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Any effort which violates this maxim – this ideal of making this as simple as they can be made, but no simpler – is not good data science, and it is certainly not honest thinking. No one chart can explain everything about any complex situation – no matter how good it is.
For instance, in Tufte’s first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, he discusses at length a fantastic visual display of data explaining the demise of Napoleon’s forces after his invasion of Russia. You can see a bit about it here. He argues that it may be one of the best visual displays of information ever devised. Obviously, it contains a lot of content and information and it is a truly remarkable piece of design. However – and this is quite important – it does not begin to capture the totality of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and certainly it does not capture everything about Napoleon overall. Importantly, though, it never claimed to do so. It is a greatly detailed presentation of the events and casualties surrounding Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and it excels at that.
Charts, like all forms of communication, have their purposes, and they can excel at those purposes. But honest thought requires us to acknowledge that the chart is an abstraction from the data, and that there are limits to visually presenting information. Honest thought also requires that we accept the fact that most things have more than one cause – that things are generally more complicated than a talking point or a single image. So, next time you see a clickbait article about how “One graph shows exactly what happened in 2008 with the housing crash!”, ignore their article and spend the time looking into things on your own – using honest thought, rather than hyperbolic claims.
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