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How to Lie with Data Visualization

Data visualization is one of the most important tools we have to analyze data. But it's just as easy to mislead as it is to educate using charts and graphs. In this article we'll take a look at 3 of the most common ways in which visualizations can be misleading.


Truncated Y-AxisOne of the easiest ways to misrepresent your data is by messing with the y-axis of a bar graph, line graph, or scatter plot. In most cases, the y-axis ranges from 0 to a maximum value that encompasses the range of the data. However, sometimes we change the range to better highlight the differences. Taken to an extreme, this technique can make differences in data seem much larger than they are.

Let's see how this works in practice. The two graphs below show the exact same data, but use different scales for the y-axis:

How to Lie With Data Visualization

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Ever since statistics were invented, non-mathematicians have been using stats to lie.

Ever since words were invented, people have been lying with them too... 

... and maybe before that too: 

Sweet little infants actually learn to deceive before they can talk, says University of Portsmouth psychology department head Vasudevi Reddy in a study that challenges traditional notions of innocence while confirming many parents' suspicions about their sneaky babies.

Most psychologists have believed that children cannot really lie until about four years of age. But after dozens of interviews with parents, and years spent observing children, Dr. Reddy has determined that infants as young as seven months are quite skilled at pulling the wool over their parents' eyes.

Rather than being a sign that your child is the next James Frey or Richard Nixon, Dr. Reddy says, baby lies are simply part of learning social interaction.

Long before children can understand complex ideas about truth and deception, Dr. Reddy writes in the April issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, "they are engaging in subtle manipulations of their own and others' actions, which succeed in deceiving others at least temporarily."

There was the 11-month-old who, caught in the act of reaching for the forbidden soil of a house plant, quickly turned his outstretched hand into a wave, his mother reported to Dr. Reddy, "as though he was saying, 'Oh, I wasn't really going to touch the soil, Mom, I was waving at you.' "

Babies also seem to think they are masters of the Jedi mind trick, using steady eye contact as a distraction technique. Another 11-month-old, upon being presented with toast she didn't want to eat, would hold eye contact with her mother while discreetly chucking the toast onto the floor.

cheeky baby 

Okay, this is a good point. Even before there was language there was lying as a survival strategy.

The reason why so many people use statistics these days to lie is that many other people are uncomfortable with numbers or anything mathy. So they'll just take the word of the person producing the numbers. The word I use when I hear numbers without reason is "scientistic".

As in, "that person just gave a scientistic explanation".

There's another one... I call it an escalation of believability: spoken > hand-written > typed > printed > printed in color >  with illustration > with photo > glossy > big glossy > huge glossy. The further down the path you take a "fact", the more believable it becomes.

Which is why so many people are creating huge glossy infographic eye candy, e.g.:

Makes the factoids behind the glossy seem more true.

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