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Stats The Media Science Technology

Data Visualization: Too Easy To Be Too Slick? 41

jfruh writes "Data visualization tools are finally putting a longtime dream within reach: offering the ability to make beautiful, slick-looking charts out of datasets almost automatically. But are our psyches ready for the shift? Data scientist Pete Warden quickly put together a visualization of Facebook name geography. Though he didn't consider it to be a scientific sample that could drive major decisions, he quickly found that it drove discussion at the New York Times and on white supremacist websites. 'There is an element of "wow, it's so professionally presented that it must be true,"' said Jim Bell, chief marketing officer for Jaspersoft."
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Data Visualization: Too Easy To Be Too Slick?

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  • The map (Score:5, Informative)

    by Garble Snarky ( 715674 ) on Saturday August 17, 2013 @06:01PM (#44596539)
    • by Anonymous Coward

      If this is what they're talking about, then Betteridge's law of Headlines [] definitely applies here, because that map is awful.

      The answer to he headline is a resounding NO.

      Clearly it's not easy to be too slick, because the "slick" graph looks like it was made by a 5th grader that just learned how to use a simple graphics package. If you're impressed by that, go see what the kids at your local art college are doing; your jaw will hit the floor if you think this map is impressive.

    • One map that visualizes the non-uniformity of US population density pretty nicely is this one [].

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The company I work for does a specialized kind of statistical analysis. Doing it properly involves at least four qualities: a lot of knowledge of the math behind the stats, a good understanding of the context of the data, a well-managed dataset, and good judgement.

    Yet the software used in industry lets anybody with a half-decent dataset and some poking around produce charts and graphs that look every bit as professional ans the truly professional work.

    The problem is manageable, largely with professional ass

    • First, even before software was used, any decent graphic artist could draw up a good looking chart or graph.

      Second, the idea that there should be a professional association of infographic-makers is idiotic. There are people try to pass off junk work [or even blatantly illegal] in every profession, whether it is in a regulated or unregulated profession, from CEO's to burger-flippers. Photographers can and have taken pictures that are entirely misleading, but have been published in newspapers.

      Third, having

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Indeed. Understanding is mandatory, the graphical representation is just a tool that makes one specific step a bit easier, namely getting a first overview of the data. Most people do not understand that at all, hence the omnipresent "lying with statistics". In the end, these computer tools make lying with statistics just a bit cheaper, that is all. Maybe this is a good thing, because if every wacko can generate beautiful charts that are wrong/meaningless/lies, people might finally start to catch on that und

  • Speak For Yourself (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 17, 2013 @06:10PM (#44596585)

    If your psyche can't properly handle a "slick" looking chart or info-graphic then you have some serious issues that you need to deal with right away. Perhaps you should get of Slashdot for awhile.

    Frankly, I was wondering what the point of this "article" was. But, now I realize that it is an advertisement for Jaspersoft.

    • If your psyche can't properly handle a "slick" looking chart or info-graphic

      Poor choice of words in the summary perhaps. But the larger point is that people can't help looking at graphical representations of data without making loads of assumptions... particularly if it looks at all "professional."

      But this is no different than the kinds of graphical games used to misrepresent data that have been used for a century or more. You can even fake "professional" statistics with no graph at all. "85.7% of men preferred our brand of shaving cream!" A number like 85.7% sounds very exact

    • Some mass media manipulate graphs to large audiences to alter their opinion. Here's a bunch of good examples: []

      One has to look pretty closely to ensure that each graph has a y-axis that starts at 0, a consistent x-axis, that the height of bars and points match the numbers that are presented and other forms of lying with data.
  • I think this question is one of the major exceptions to Betteridge's Law, in that the answer is usually Yes.

    Either the answer is "yes", or it doesn't matter because whatever it is, it's coming anyway.

    Examples of past headlines like this:

    Genetic Engineering Is Coming. Are We Ready?

    Digital Cameras And Photo Software Are Becoming Too Sophisticated, Too Fast. Are We Ready For The Inevitable Fake Photographs?

  • by AdamHaun ( 43173 ) on Saturday August 17, 2013 @07:20PM (#44596937) Journal

    The Visual Display of Quantitative Information has many examples of slick-looking graphics going back decades, long before computers were any good at graphics. How to Lie with Statistics is even older than that. Newspapers and news magazines have always been infamously bad at showing data. It's a rare data graphic that doesn't focus on decoration over content, and that's ignoring the ones that are deliberately distorted.

    That being said, most software (I'm looking at you, Excel) is way too helpful about creating bad data graphics.

  • Who remembers the classic How to Lie With Statistics []?

    Unsurprisingly, just as advances in computer technology have allowed us to make bigger, messier, errors faster than ever before, they are allowing us to exploit the fact that human statistical intuition is pretty much shit better than ever.

    • by darenw ( 74015 )

      An excellent book. Recommended by 100% of those who recommend this book.

    • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

      Unsurprisingly, just as advances in computer technology have allowed us to make bigger, messier, errors faster than ever before, they are allowing us to exploit the fact that human statistical intuition is pretty much shit better than ever.

      Or to make content-less graphics as well. Really, an infographic is just a slick form of PowerPoint presentation, and everyone knows how trivially easy it is to make a complete slide deck that's impressive, but in the end, be completely content-free.

      Heck, it's such a prob

  • This sounds like a rehash of the old "Computer Said It, So It Must Be True" meme from the not-so-distant past. If that experience can provide any guidance, people will mostly learn to ignore these flashy new graphics after 50 or 100 years or so...
  • When I first looked at the infographic on the referenced blog, I misread the label for California to be "Socialistan", thinking it to be a comment on the liberalism of the place. Later I realized it said "Socalistan", referring to the locale of the center of influence. I wonder if anyone else did the same.

    I am surprised that "Socalistan" showed such localized connections on the map. Since so very many people in California are from outside California originally I would have thought there would be really st
  • This pie chart is my favorite example of a nonsensical graphic that looks really professional. []

    • by Kaenneth ( 82978 )

      I think the anti-smoking ads are so bad because the tobacco companies are being forced to pay for them. so they take the passive-aggressive route.

      Tobacco and Cat Pee both have Ammonia! oh dear!, they also both have DHMO!

    • Two pie charts, both nonsensical! Racial distribution of adults who smoke is meaningless because total population of each classification varies widely. Meaningful would've been the *proportion* of each racial classification that smokes, which would have been best plotted as a bar chart, not a pie chart. And in the second one, "Funds available for controlling tobacco use"? Who says those funds are supposed to be used for that purpose? Who says that *only* those funds are supposed to be used for that pur

  • I like the way they consider the fact that a particular graphic was used by "White supremacists" to argue for a particular viewpoint, to prove that that graphic must be unscientific. I wonder if they would consider such graphics to be unscientific if they were used to argue that America was becoming more diverse, rather than that it was being 'swamped'.
  • wow, they use so big words, they must be right?

    If you don't know anything, you have to believe everything. Where's the news, that stupid people are easily duped? I knew that before.

  • Look at the photos of the Cottingley Fairies []. To our eyes today, it's pretty obvious that those are paper cutouts but many people of the day believed that they could be real.

    Listen to the radio play of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" []. At the time, it terrified everyone. Now? It seems ridiculous that anyone would believe it.

    Re-watch the Star Wars []. The lasers, explosions and other effects are cheesy and lame by today's standards, but it was awe-inspiring to the people who saw it in 1977.

    Initially, people

  • I write massively parallel scientific simulation software for a living (the kind that runs on the biggest machines in the world)... and trying to come up with a way to display GBs or TBs of information from some of our largest simulations can be _tough_.

    We use several open source packages ( Mostly [] and [] ), but most of our best visualizations are actual done using a commercial package ( [] )

    For so

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      It's a natural effect of having so much of our economy dedicated to marketing where truth is entirely secondary to creating belief. That earth may be even more heavily salted for the younger scientists who grew up associating anything like that with damned lie.

  • It is not a matter of psyche, but realizing the difference between visual and conceptual information processing in humans.

    It's not unlike a GPU vs CPU: while visual is much faster it brings a certain bias.

    (For bias look for "optical illusions" and focus more on static ones).

I was playing poker the other night... with Tarot cards. I got a full house and 4 people died. -- Steven Wright