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Bad Chart Thursday: Stand Your Ground

By now, I’m sure you’ve all seen the Worst Chart in the Universe, created by Christine Chan of Reuters, depicting the number of gun deaths (or murders?) committed using firearms in Florida, with emphasis on the 2005 enactment of the state’s Stand Your Ground law.

Here it is for those who haven’t seen it being snickered across Twitter or in Pharyngula.

florida gun deaths

 

On Twitter, Chan defends her inverted y-axis as a preference and points to this image as her inspiration.

Others on Twitter and in the Pharyngula comments section have pointed out that the two charts aren’t comparable (one is a bar chart, and the other is a line chart; the Iraq chart also puts the x-axis at the top, making the intentional inversion much clearer; and for the dripping blood effect, Chan could have just reversed the colors, not the y-axis–and clarified that it’s dripping blood circa 1980s video games).

So rather than rehash the same old ground here, I am instead going to go out on a limb and defend Chan’s chart.

Yep.

First, what everyone seems to be missing is that the chart is obviously intended to be viewed using a complex series of mirrors while standing on your head or perhaps only by opossums.

Therefore, criticizing this chart obviously means you hate possums.

Second, this chart is clearly a sophisticated commentary on negative space in the guise of a horribly misleading chart. Sure, Chan implies she was going for the dripping blood effect, but given how tasteless and insensitive that would be toward the families of those who lost their lives to gun violence, obviously she was really going for something more subtle. The discerning artistic eye can see that she was actually depicting Picacho Peak. (Go on. Scroll up. You can’t unsee the obvious Picacho Peak in this chart.)

Picacho Peak.flipped

And Picacho Peak happens to be in Arizona, another state with a Stand Your Ground law.

COINCIDENCE?!

Third, and finally, she is absolutely right that the deaths can be shown either way. Business Insider demonstrates this fact by providing a more accurate version of her chart along with the original (although neither chart is all that accurate in the sense that gun deaths and murders are conflated, so we don’t really know what we’re even looking at from the start). But clearly, both ways can be shown. It is a matter of preference. Some people prefer accurate presentation of information and others do not. I can’t argue with that considering Bad Chart Thursday would not exist if this were not the case.

For example, maybe you’re in the mood for a scatter plot, with the years on the left. Also an excellent way to present accurate numbers uselessly.

scatter death

In fact, there’s really no end to the ways in which we can present accurate numbers without showing anything useful at all.

floridadecades

So in essence, the fact that Chan was attempting to sensationalize the deaths with the dripping blood image and in this process did pretty much the exact opposite, conveying what appeared to be a drop in deaths, is nothing short of bad chart artistry. Chan is clearly the double agent of charts. Given her obvious concern for presenting information that is inclusive of the opossum community and that relies on artistic presentations of deeper truths that connect Florida and Arizona, I argue that this chart is in fact a brilliant meta representation of how we can mislead with visual information even when the numbers are “accurate.”

This is so impressive, in fact, that I am taking DrRubidium’s suggestion and creating an official contest for the Reuters Really Bad Chart Award. Whoever can take publicly available data and present it in the most ridiculous way possible will win fame and fortune in the form of kitchen towel with their chart clumsily hand-embroidered on it by me. Submit your charts to me at [email protected] by July 1. The winner will be announced after I recover from SkepchickCon and the best of the charts displayed here on Skepchick.

Picacho Peak photo a flipped version of the photo taken by Flickr user Bob of Arizona.

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+

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13 Comments

  1. How about a pie chart? Pie charts can be used inappropriately with more kinds of data than any other kind of chart. I’m tempted to make a pie chart (complete with made-up data extracted from past “Bad Chart Thursdays”) to illustrate this, but a) I can’t draw a circle and b) I have no idea how to post a graphical image to the web, and c) I ate all the pie. It was yummy. (Or it was until the possums got into it.)

    1. YES! A pie chart would also look pretty awesome embroidered on a kitchen towel. I just use a Google spreadsheet to input numbers, then click Insert –> Chart to create charts. I often have to tweak quite a bit, sometimes by importing it into Photoshop or PicMonkey, but for goofing around purposes, this works well.

      1. Not true, it’s an easy way to express percentages, so it’s appropriate where numerical values aren’t important. The real WTF is 3D pie-charts, because you can’t compare the angles properly. (Also those weird pie charts that express things as areas – no one thinks like that.)

  2. But if she had left the y-axis the normal orientation and made the part above the line red, she’d have had less red in years of more murders, the opposite of the “red is bad” theme she was going for.

    I think calling her presentation of the information “useless” is too strong. Suboptimal, I guess.

    Also, the “bar chart” vs “line chart” difference between the Iraq War figure and this figure isn’t much of a difference. Yes, one shows bars and the other shows lines, but it’s exactly the same type of information (deaths per year, by year). Why does the bar-vs.-line distinction make inverted y-axis okay in one case and not in the other?

    1. It’s not that her presentation is useless so much as any presentation of *both* gun deaths and murders as though they are the same thing is useless. No chart that conflates the two would work for this purpose, especially since the Stand Your Ground law specifically makes particular gun deaths not murders. And aside from that law, gun deaths and murders by firearms aren’t the same thing. They overlap, but many gun deaths are not murders (accidents, suicides, etc.).

      Bars simply drip better than lines, as shown in the Iraq chart, making the effect more obvious. The X-axis at the top makes the inversion clearer. I don’t, for the record, think the Iraq chart is okay. I think it’s in very poor taste and sensationalist. It’s not unclear at a glance, though, the way this chart is, largely because here, the y-axis is inverted but the x-axis is not.

      1. Regarding your first paragraph:

        “any presentation of *both* gun deaths and murders as though they are the same thing is useless.”
        I’m confused. The figure shows firearm murders. Neither gun deaths nor murders, per se, but their Venn diagram intersection. I don’t see why it’s useless to present the number of gun murders per year, as long as it’s well labeled, which this is.

        Now, the fact that the # of gun murders per year seemed to increase right when the SYG law went into effect is interesting. It’s not clear how statistically significant this is, nor what the explanation would be. If it’s a real effect, maybe more people are shooting and killing others because they think they’re legitimately standing their ground but it ends up being murder? Maybe the important thing is simply that while you might think that SYG would reduce the # of murders (since would-be murderers will be more fearful of would-be murder victims standing their ground), in fact it doesn’t seem to. At any rate, I don’t see a problem with portraying the information.

        Regarding the second paragraph:

        “Bars simply drip better than lines, as shown in the Iraq chart, making the effect more obvious.”
        Okay, that’s a decent point, although I think that most of the drippiness in the Iraq figure comes from the size of the data set and its variance, not the bar-ness of the chart. Put differently, if Chen had used a bar chart, I don’t think it would have looked very drippy either, just because of the # of data points and the fact that they don’t vary hugely year to year.

        “The X-axis at the top makes the inversion clearer.”
        Yes, I agree.

        “I think it’s in very poor taste and sensationalist.”
        Disagree here. Presenting information in an easily-ingestible format is the goal of a good figure. There aren’t skull-and-crossbones all over the figure. I don’t see either poor taste or sensationalism.

        1. I’m confused. The figure shows firearm murders. Neither gun deaths nor murders, per se, but their Venn diagram intersection. I don’t see why it’s useless to present the number of gun murders per year, as long as it’s well labeled, which this is.

          The title of the chart is Florida gun deaths. That suggests that the chart depicts gun deaths. The subtitle suggests that it depicts murders. They aren’t the same, and nowhere does the chart clarify this or show this Venn intersection you mention. If it did and if it were well labeled, it would say this, such as something along the lines of number of or percentage of gun deaths that are murders, and it would define what “murders” means in this context–police reported murders? Court adjudicated murders? The difference is crucial to even having a conversation about what this means in relation to the Stand Your Ground law because that law changes what is even called a murder. Also, if this were a Venn-like intersection, it would show two sets of numbers, gun deaths and murders. It doesn’t. So I really don’t see how you can get this idea from this chart, much less say that it is well labeled when the opposite is true. It’s so poorly labeled that we don’t even know what it’s actually showing.

          Yes, there are even more reasons why the blood dripping effect wouldn’t work for Chan’s chart, which only further demonstrates that it probably wasn’t an effect she should have gone for. I think part of the issue here might be that she created the chart with the effect in mind, with a point she wanted to make, being her foremost consideration, with accuracy and clarity being secondary (if considered at all). That is pretty much the main issue with most bad charts, focusing on using them to convey an opinion or to sway people rather than focusing on presenting information accurately and clearly. Fox News, for example, is notorious for it’s bad charts because they create them with a point they want to make as the primary purpose, creating charts that are unclear at best and misleading and dishonest at worst. The chart should be created with accuracy and clarity as the main priority. If you can then create an effect or make a point based on how this accurate and clear chart appears, then by all means do it. But you don’t compromise accuracy and clarity to make a point. If anything, the act of doing so undermines your point, even if the point itself is valid.

          Not sure I understand the line you’re drawing between skull and crossbones and dripping blood. A chart that wouldn’t have been easy to understand without making it look like dripping blood probably has issues the dripping blood is not going to fix.

          1. “The title of the chart is Florida gun deaths. That suggests that the chart depicts gun deaths.”

            Right you are. I missed the title (the biggest text in the whole image). Thanks for pointing this out to me.

            “Not sure I understand the line you’re drawing between skull and crossbones and dripping blood.”
            Well, I didn’t really see it as dripping blood. I mean, there aren’t droplets depicted. It’s just a chart with a portion (that most people would agree corresponds to bad stuff) shown in red.

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