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How to lie with charts

Sunday 20 March 2011, 12:04

I'm generally a fan of the IAEA, but this image I just grabbed from their Web site is a textbook example of slanting (literally!) a graphic image so that it misleads the reader.

Fuel temperature chart

The chart shows the temperature of two spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi. Until the morning of March 19, UTC, the temperatures were slowly but steadily increasing. After that, they decreased significantly. These data could well be presented with a two-dimensional line chart.

But the makers of the chart above chose to project it into three dimensions in such a way that the lines slant downward even where the temperature is increasing - obscuring one of the most important pieces of information the numbers represent, which is the direction of change. A human being looking at the chart and not reading the numbers would get the incorrect impression that the temperature was consistently decreasing over the entire time period. Thus the chart has failed in its purpose of making the numbers understandable. The chart actually conveys a negative amount of information, because it conveys incorrect information. If you erased all the graphics and left only the numbers, readers would be better informed.

If they were going to make a chart, there is no reason it needed to be a three-dimensional chart; and if they were going to make a three-dimensional chart, there is no reason they had to use that particular choice of projection angle. I hate to ascribe to malice that which could be explained by stupidity, but this really does look the way deliberate deception would look; and it has the same effect as deliberate deception even if it isn't actually deliberate deception.

How Wikipedia could save itself

Saturday 19 February 2011, 00:15

I don't think Wikipedia wants to save itself. But if they really wanted to, I know how they could do it.

On language and the use thereof

Saturday 2 October 2010, 12:01

Hatred is not the same thing as fear, not even if they often occur at the same time to the same people. When you pretend that those two things are identical to each other, and attempt to build that pretense into the language instead of admitting that it is an activist position - for instance, when you use words like "homophobia" - you make the world a less good place and you harm those of your goals that are worth promoting.

This is important.

On the marshmallow test

Wednesday 30 June 2010, 09:46

Show a four-year-old child some marshmallows and a bell. Tell them that you're going to leave the room for a while (fifteen or twenty minutes). Say that if they ring the bell, you'll come back and give them a marshmallow. However, say that if they don't ring the bell, but wait until you come back without ringing it, then you will give them two marshmallows. Record what happens.

Ten years later, assess the child's personality and general success in life by means of a questionnaire sent to their parents. What you discover is that the ones who rang the bell, or who rang it earlier, score relatively poorly on questions that measure social adjustment, "emotional intelligence," and so on. The ones who didn't ring the bell, or rang it later, score much better on those measures, and also score better on the SAT. Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6) [PDF]

The part I think is really interesting is what the authors of that paper don't say about the experimental protocol.