Lies, Damn Lies, and Charts?

Over at Nautilus, Becca Cudmore is puzzled by how the same information can be displayed on charts with two entirely different attitudes, or spin. According to Ruth Rosenholtz, a scientist over at MIT, the way you can tell if a chart is trying to deceive you is by how long it takes you to figure out what that visual is trying to say. "A bad chart requires more cognitive processes and more reasoning about what you’ve seen."

Since you are often required to use visuals, including graphs and charts, let's take a look at a couple of Nautilus's examples of what you should NOT do.

Puzzling Perspective - The purple chart is about "labor." It is displaying the same information, so why do these charts look so different?

The pie chart on the right puts labor up front and closer to you, so it takes up more space. The chart at left puts the labor information farther away from you, so it takes less space (think vanishing point perspective).

In other words, making your numbers look bigger or smaller depends on your perspective.

Swindling Shapes - In this graph, like the former pie chart, it is displaying the exact same information, and the only relevant property of the bar is height. However when the shape is changed to a 3-D cone it makes the information harder to interpret.

The red information at the top of the chart on the left is administrative costs and the blue tip of the cone on the right is also administrative costs - do those two bits of visual information look the same to you?

"In both charts, administrative costs take almost a third of each dollar. While this matches reasonably with the left chart, the right chart seems to shrink administrative costs to something much less than a third. 'Anytime you ask anyone to judge just height and ignore the other measurements,' says Rosenholtz, 'it’s going to take extra cognitive load to disregard these other cues.'” In other words, the chart takes more time to figure out--a good sign you are being deceived.

Charts are a great way to take in a lot of information in an instant, but like any other text, they can be rhetorically dishonest. So the next time you read a graph, ask yourself if the material is being displayed honestly? Have you ever created a chart that may have presented your material in a biased way?


  1. There are typically two reasons as to why misleading or otherwise confusing graphs are used: 1) The user felt it was fancy, 2) They are trying to muddle the information. The former lends itself to the aesthetic taste of the user in question. This is highly evident in people that like to use confusing infographics on their design resume (a sin in and of itself). The 3D effects, distorted perspective, or swirl, cone shaped graphics all lend themselves to look cool and interesting, especially when applied to a page that is in desperate need of looking interesting. It is the result of an innocent, harmless desire for the presentation of information to be attention grabbing. But (and there always is a but), it fails in this regard because it simply confuses the audience as to what the meaning of the statistic is. It is a road to hell paved with best intentions. Probably a hyperbole; but you catch my drift.

    -Christopher Matian

  2. While I try not to present material in a biased way, it may have slipped out from time to time. When I create something, I create and present something that I personally like and think fits- and this can show bias very easily. But I do feel that the puzzling perspective graph is much more innocent than the swindling shapes graph. The swindling shapes graph having a cone makes a graph much harder to interpret, and you kind of subconsciously take the area of a shape into effect when you look at it. The blue admin part of the swindling shapes graph looks as if it is smaller than the red grants part due to the point of the cone, but in reality, it isn't. It's good to take this to note because making sure material is displayed honestly allows you to take the right perspective on data and allows you to analyze such data better. But ideally, you should try not making a biased graph in the first place.

  3. Using charts and graphs as a visual representation for specific information is a method that many people use to reinforce their position on a certain topic. The issue with this is that some of these visual representations may be difficult for some people to understand. There are different ways to be able to show someone a piece of information, but a visual display is usually the most effective. It is also easy to be able to deceive people with inaccurate information using visual materials. Advertisements are good example of how visual information can be misleading. For example, fast food restaurants typically have visual representations on television of what their food should look like but those products are only for "display." It is not too difficult to be able to twist visual materials to better suit an argument just like how easy it can be to misinterpret a inaccurate chart with an unsuspecting eye.I know that I have used charts and graphs to fit my position and to support my argument. Whose to say that anybody else won't/can't do the same?

  4. It's pretty easy to lead presentation with a bias standpoint. I have found myself doing quite often in the business and educational world. While trying to prove a point, persuade a purchase, or even to elaborate the benefits of doing something it is quite easy to lean on one side versus another. The visual effect that it has on people is quite huge. When people begin to see things through charts and graphs it heavily effects what they think about a particular subject. Especially when covering a sensitive subject such as poverty rates, student dropouts, and the unemployment rates.

  5. Charts have always been helpful for me to understand things in the past until I realized the difference in perspective. These charts truly have a way of helping you understand what the writer is trying to explain, but it also makes it hard to grasp the idea without a bias standpoint. When a graph is added to someones research it is almost certain that they are trying to sway you to believe one idea over another. Although charts have a tendency to be biased I still think they are very necessary in helping the reader get a deeper understanding of what is being written. This can also create a moment for the reader to really engage in what they are looking at because it isn't as simple as just looking at the chart one way. Bias standpoints are always going to occur in writing, it is the readers job to detect it and still create their own original opinion.

  6. I've always had a love-hate relationship with charts and statistics. While they do a great job of relaying information much faster than words alone, they can also easily misconstrue the data they present. All it takes is a flashy image with a solid color scheme and a clean, modern, illustration to convince the public that what the chart says must be credible. A lot of the time, it's easy to misinterpret charts and statistics for fountains of objective truths. However, stats have a margin of error, they can't account for everyone in the world. Always remember the sample size--how many people do these numbers account for? That question tends to be disregarded when the information is viewed. Chart creators know this, and a lot of the time use this to get the public to agree with them. They will exclude or disguise the information that might leave public opinion open-ended.

    That being said, opinion empathy is easier said than done. We always see our personal perspective first, which makes understanding an opinion we disagree with a difficult practice. This has led to my own personal biases when relaying information in the past. I think it's because we're so afraid of being told we're wrong, that we try to force ourselves to be right, and we try to force others to see that too. However, lately I've tried to avoid that by keeping an avid self-criticism of what I believe and why.

    Now, statistics aren't all bad of course. They do provide us with correlations that pose questions and give way for further discourse to occur. But it's important we remain critical of both the information we receive and deliver. Never assume what you hear is true before reasoning, questioning, and understanding something to its fullest. Only then will we avoid becoming victim to these swindling shapes and misguiding charts.

  7. Like most people, I find that looking at a visual is the easiest way to get information. Big business knows this too, they purposely shape their data and statistics into graphs and charts to make their business seem favorable for the common man. I am sure that this is what marketing students all across the country are learning how to do this.
    The reason that this works is because our American culture is focused on getting what we want as fast as we can, we take the information for face value rather than look at it a little longer and see what the graph or chart is actually telling us

  8. In high school I was introduced to how numbers and figures could be manipulated to try and persuade people to think in certain ways. Since numbers are usually solid evidence, it'd be weird not to trust what the graph is saying, right? But how the numbers are presented can make a world of difference, and I found that even statistics, and how they are used, can be underhanded. There's a quote that stuck with me from high school from Theodore Billroth that says "statistics are like women; mirrors of purest virtue and truth, or like whores to use as one pleases" and I've come across many instances where this observation has been proven true. It just goes to show that anything presented as factual and "right" should be cross checked a few times before it can be considered as possible.

  9. Graphs and pie charts are widely used in science and math. Especially in high school level courses. The graphs not only grab the teen aged kids attentions because of the color contrast, but it helps the teachers teach their lesson. It helps teachers by grabbing and keeping their students attention so they retain more information. However the manipulation that these charts present if perceived from an face value perspective contradicts the intention of graphs and pie charts. One thing to keep in mind is that majority our high school students are being taught to take the information presented from these pie charts and graphs to be correct and not to think critically about why the pie chart and graphs present the statistics and data they show are correct and why. Therefore if these pie charts and graphs may be misleading shouldn't we encourage our school teachers to teach our high school students to think critically about these pie charts and graphs, when taking science and math courses?

  10. Visual Statistics, graphs or any other visual chart is a great way to provide quick facts without bombarding your audience with words. Even though this is an easy way to explain things it's also an easy way to manipulate evidence by an illusion when altering the graphs in order to sway your audiences opinion. While I may like these graphic charts I do find myself having a hard time understanding some of them and I must say that the manipulation of the charts usually get past my thought. But saying that all graphs are bad would be bias and hypocritical since i use charts for some of my presentations in school and I usually try to find an truthful chart that doesn't use mind tricks to persuade an audience. In the end these charts are a double edged sword; they may be useful to persuade an opinion but if it's an untrue chart and it's unnoticed you will most likely lose the confidence in the audience.

  11. Graphs are used in almost every presentation a student has weather it's for science, math, multimedia, etc. In high school teachers show you a lot of graphs for almost everything and I think it's easier for everyone to explain a point or when they are trying to compare things. Instead of the person trying to draw a graph on the spot its easier when its already created. Although it's easier for them to present it, but some the graphs it's hard understanding what they mean. I think it's meant to be that way because it's supposed to show us what they want us to see. Because depending on what way you face the graph some parts will look smaller than the others. Graphs are easier for them to present,but they are mostly untrue.

  12. Looking at a visual is the easiest way for some to understand information, myself included. Graphs are most commonly used in math, science, and information data. They are also often times used in presentation in high school and college. I sometimes have struggled trying to understand them especially mathematical graphs.

  13. Graphics and tables are an easy way to present a lot of information without overloading the reader with too much at once. It's easy to bypass statistics and numbers while reading because it may be hard to understand. Having graphs also emphasizes whats important in the reading. With a storm of information a graph can make giving this information much easier and this allows the reader to really understand whats being written. There have been many times in my science classes where I had to document results and statistics. Graphs make it easy to understand at first glance and allow the teacher and other students to easily see what the outcome of a lab was and where it may have gone wrong. It's important to keep the readers in mind when writing. Inserting graphs and tables could be the reason your readers continue to read your stuff.

  14. It’s interesting because I’ve never payed attention to how information is presented in graphs. Often, I’d just quickly glance and form an opinion on it. I never thought the interpretation of data could be altered by a simple change of color or format, but after thinking about it graphs aren’t too different from everyday language. They both serve to convey a message and based on how they are framed could be interpreted differently .Next time I’m being bombarded with pie and bar charts I’ll pay little more attention to the presenter’s intent.


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