Tuesday, February 11, 2014

7 Reasons To Hate Infographics

Ah, infographics, how I love to hate you. The red squiggly under your name in my text editor implies that your very existence is questionable as you try to wriggle your way into our modern lexicon. Infographics are a violation of the sacred purity of clean facts, which I consider the pinnacle of discussion and learning:

"I think that most people are trying to eat healthy, so that's a good reason to pay more attention to healthier food markets. Places like 'Trader Joe's' and generic Farmer's Markets are going to become more and more popular, and I think that's a good thing," my wife says on the way home.

"No, most people aren't trying to eat healthy," I reply.

"What?" She asks.

"Well you said that 'most people' are trying to eat healthy. 'Most people' is, by definition, a majority of the population, greater than 50%. I think 50% is a gross exaggeration. Even if you omit children and the elderly, I think the college to late-life-adult population may have 25% that are devoting any significant energy to healthier eating. That might be too optimistic. I might say 15 to 20%. Certainly not most," I explain.

"... Seriously?" She sounds exasperated.

"What?" It is now my turn to be confused.

"You knew what I meant, why do you have to be so technical?" she asks, upset by my surgical tactics.

"Because facts are the crucial underpinnings to any argument!" I cry out, reaching my arms wide as if to invite the entire logical world to embrace me, confirming my fact-driven wisdom!

I am left bereft of either the logical world's embrace, or my wife's, who looks at me like I'm crazy.

I might be a bit obsessed with getting accurate facts, and presenting them with fidelity to their actual implications. As a scientist, it's what I trained to do. Thinking this way, I have met a great nemesis: Infographics.

By taking some observed 'facts' and presenting them with colorful logos and arrows, you make a world of implications and, in so doing, tell lies to the world around you. There's a reason that we scientists and statisticians like our facts in black 10pt Lucida Console -- it reminds us that we aren't FOX news or CNN. Facts are facts and that's all they are. Believe it or not, I love little hearts and stick people as much as the next guy, but they don't belong with the facts. Looking at this infographic (http://goo.gl/N3Mea3) I found many concerning issues, common to infographics. Here are a few:

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#1) Calling Numbers 'Science'

I need look no further than the title for our first big deception. There is no science in this and many other infographics. Numbers do not mean science. Science is searching for answers by conducting experiments -- merely observing does not fit the bill, and can never establish causation. Using the term 'science' in your title is a terrible appeal to authority. People may be more likely to trust you because you have called it 'science.' They have been duped -- this is not, in fact, science. Despite your cartoon beakers, microscope, and double helices.

#2) Immeasurable quantities. 

Common in many infographics. Here the authors suggest a proportionality between sex (quality? quantity? length of time per? Who knows.), romance (Bringing roses home?), passion (Isn't this a product of sex and romance?) and quality of friendship (Number of times a lemonade stand was run together? Has a spit handshake been executed?). Basically four ideas that are extremely hard to measure are compared, invalidating the entire comparison. In psychology, there are sometimes standard tests for these ideas, but they typically involve self measurement on a 1-10 or 1-5 scale and are notoriously unscientific.

#3) Overly Obvious Observations

Happy people are happy and help make one another happy, but only if both people are initially happy. Also, Two happy people have a 94% chance of being happy together... Shocking. Here, facts are completely abandoned in favor of pandering.  These points are as obvious as they are useless to observe, as I haven't met many people who are campaigning for misery. This is another common infographic tactic: point out an obvious comparison that anyone would agree with, leading you to believe that all comparisons/observations in the infographic are reasonable.

#4) Oversimplification Of Complex Ideas

'Happiness' is probably the hardest metric to measure because it is so multi-faceted:

  • I eat a doughnut(Pleasure happiness); 
  • My country is not at war (Absence of fear happiness); 
  • My moral code gives me confidence in an afterlife  (Peace of mind happiness);
  • I am successful at work (Accomplishment happiness); 
  • I quit that dead-end job to do what I love (Hopefulness happiness); 
  • A history of hard work and devotion that has paid valuable dividends (Satisfaction happiness).

These happinesses are not necessarily of equal value, and every individual seeks after them to different degrees. Couples married 5 years or less and have no children may have extensive pleasure happiness (Presumed increase in sex.) or absence of fear happiness (Breaking up seems less likely.) or hopefulness happiness (Ah the possibilities for the future!). These happinesses are easier for individuals to identify in themselves.
Other more subtle happinesses that many would consider of greater value, such as satisfaction happiness or peace of mind happiness, are unattainable without confronting challenges as a couple (raising children) or sticking it out for a long time (decades of marriage).
Infographics are really bad at this sort of thing. In order to achieve a high degree of 'readability' for all people, they use generic umbrella terms which can apply to a number of things. They do this in the name of 'simplicity' so that everyone can 'learn.' But what is being learnt is confusing at best and dead wrong at worst. Accuracy takes longer to explain and more thinking to appreciate, but without it the facts become falsehoods.

#5) Nonsense Conversions

What? This... I just... what?
I'm sure there's some... numbers... behind this.
I guess someone turned... dollars... into a unit of satisfaction. Then took a measure of happiness change and converted it into dollars...
Most infographics aren't this bad. I included this particularly terrible 'fact' for shock value. These conversions may seem interesting at first glance, but only a second's thought reveals the utter foolishness hat must have gone into their concoction.

#6) Unanswered Questions On How Data Is Gathered

Which Americans? Old married couples? Newly married couples? Couples who got divorced? What does the driving decision to marry have to do with happiness in marriage? Are we supposed to believe the most popular reason to get married is also the best one? Were people allowed to choose just one option or could they choose multiple? How many could they pick? Were options given or did they generate their own? Aren't most people surveyed likely to lie and say love? If the most common cause of divorce is financial disagreement, does this imply that if financial stability were more of a factor in deciding to marry that there would be fewer divorces?
These aren't trivial questions -- the answers to each of these SIGNIFICANTLY SKEW HOW WE VIEW RESULTS. Without even a passing reference to how data is collected, which exists only in footnotes that are not well referenced for the individual facts, how can we possibly say anything? These become just random numbers.
Nearly all infographics I've seen are terrible at this. They seldom explain how data is collected, and every scientist spends years and years learning how to properly collect data, knowing that a slight change in how it's collected can render the entire study moot.

#7) Considering Only One Side Of A Question

Marital satisfaction is another compounded issue. With a child, life gets more difficult. Money, time, everything becomes tighter. When you ask someone if they are more or less satisfied with their marriage before or after children, they are probably thinking of how peaceful things used to be, or how there was more money for restaurants and movies. The way these answers are presented here implies that people were happier without kids without saying it outright.
But it wouldn't take long to disprove that idea! Ask any parent if they would rather not have their kids, or go back in time and never have kids at all. We all know how those answers would be slanted, but the way this data is presented implies that children are 'unwanted,' even if no actual numbers say that.
The simplification of extremely complex topics is something politicians have been using to deceive followers and villify opponents for centuries; That we should fall prey to the same tactics so quickly when photoshopped into an infographic with a colorful palette is a true shame.

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All things considered, I must echo the sentiments of one inspired commenter  on the original, "WTF is going on here?"

I should note that the most tragic thing about these infographics is that the data they skew is typically lifted from exellent publications by well-reputed scientistics and analytical organizations. The creators of these grade-school-quality-projects will often throw all of their sources at the bottom and hide behind the citations. It is not enough. It is wildly irresponsible to misrepresent data and then blame the reader for not delving into 20 page articles to find the truth. That was your job, and you did it poorly, if at all.

I'm not trying to be difficult, and I don't expect everyone to jump on my bandwagon. I've seen a lot of infographics, and admittedly I picked one of the worst to make my points. Bill Nye showed us all how good science really can be presented in a colorful and enjoyable format that allows us to learn it accurately. Our responsibility now is to differentiate when we are being presented with facts, and in stark contrast, when facts are being paraded and dressed up to imply conclusions that they don't truly support. Scientific papers are peer-reviewed and typically draw conservative and reasonable conclusions. Infographics are sensationalism at its worst.

You know, this post turned out lengthy and difficult to follow. I wish there was some way I could strengthen my point and communicate it more convincingly.

Maybe I'll make an infographic.


  1. Love it! I had a similar reaction to several of the issues, most notably putting a dollar amount on happiness!

    I do have to call you out on your conversation at the beginning... your estimate of the number of people eating more is no more factual than your wife's. So, that conversation isn't really much to support your point about the central importance of facts... as much as it is to imply that you may subconsciously consider your own opinions to resemble facts more than other people's. :-)

    I would also quibble just a bit about your narrow definition of science and apparent exclusion of the subjective. Certain things are experienced subjectively, so measuring them subjectively is still a reasonable impartial way to quantify and describe them. The key is in not overstating the findings, as you correctly say throughout.

    Thanks for a fun read!

  2. Hey Coach! Thanks for the comment!

    I certainly have to concede to you on both points. My conversation at the beginning was less about a desire for scientific accuracy and more linguistic accuracy, that 'majority' should only be used when a person believes it to mean more than 50%, which my wife didn't.

    My definition of science is inarguably narrow, though ultimately I meant to express that the litmus test of science is not whether information is quantitative or qualitative, but more about whether there is experimentation or merely observation, as I believe the 'sciences' of observation should be given a classification of their own.