Numbers game

When I was at the SAS Analytics Conference with work in London last week (nice weather, the food was great), I had the pleasure of hearing Tim Harford speak about data visualisation (i.e. graphs and the like). As well as interesting tidbits such as Florence Nightingale being one of the earlier pioneers of data visualisation, he showed us this:

There is also a US version:

These are entertaining and thought-provoking for sure, but Mr Harford was keen to point out that this data (which you can find here) isn’t painting the whole picture- it is largely designed to elicit an emotional response (which he was keen to point out was not in of itself a bad thing). The figure of £13M ($21M) to “Save the Amazon” is funding the Brazilian government is looking to raise “to protect nature reserves, to persuade loggers and farmers to stop destroying trees and to finance scientific and technological projects”, (quote from here) which you will hopefully agree is not quite the same as “Saving the Amazon” (though it may go a long way towards that).

Similarly, there are issues with the Iraq War figures; for example the estimates for the total cost in 2003 did not take into account the cost of death (that is, repatriating soldiers’ bodies and benefits for their widows) while the more up to date figure did. In other words, it is not a fair, like-for-like, comparison.

The moral of the story here is that even pretty, well-made graphs do not give a complete picture. I’ve often found that in my job that information that seems too good to be true is precisely that. It’s good to have a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to the realm of data- especially if they don’t quote their sources (but it’s still worth checking even if they do). It’s an unfortunate fact of life that not everyone has the time or the inclination to check the information they are given, and that the people giving the information know this (and I haven’t mentioned sports commentators and pundits, who are in a league of their own when giving misleading (though true) information!).

Speaking of which, I’m off to spread lard on my head. I’ve been told that it removes up to 100% of dandruff!

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