Friday, January 18, 2013

Guns, data, and infographics

It is a tragic quirk of human condition that no dataset or piece of scientific evidence will ever beat the emotional appeal of a crying face. Or it may not be tragic at all —you may argue— but fortunate, as being led astray by feelings every now and then is preferable to systematically act as a soulless android. That's why when it comes to the gun control debate, it matters so little that there's (messy) research to chew on, or that "the chances of a child’s dying in a school shooting are remote," as Sam Harris points out in his excellent overview. We humans don't care about probability theory when we've seen the shattered grimaces of mourning parents on TV and pictured their kids in our minds. No statistic can defeat that, recent polls suggest.

(There's another side of this story, of course: Loving the texture of a trigger too much can also shut down your frontal lobe.)

That said, is it acceptable that journalists and designers take advantage of people's cognitive biases and shortcomings rather than trying to overcome them? To what extent is an illustration like the one on the left misleading (National Postsource)? My liberal reptilian brain screams that's a lot of deaths, you NRA morons! This is "the point" the illustration makes. At the same time, we all should know that absolute figures are dangerous when presented out of context: Are 900 deaths a lot in a country of 300 million? Are all gun-related deaths equal? And so forth. Still, it is fair to think that a good portion of those deaths could have been avoided if we had stricter control measures that even knowledgeable libertarians embrace. Saving hundreds of lives a month is a worthwhile goal in absolute and relative terms. These should all be elements for a national debate.

I think that you can see where I'm going: There's depth, messiness, and uncertainty behind the deceptive simplicity of the National Post illustration, which is more an op-ed than an infographic. Why should we avoid them? Why should we devote so much real state to promote such a shallow message, rather than using it to help citizens reach a reasonable conclusion? As much as I like this graphic, which is essentially true, I believe that pondering over the data much further could make it truer.


  1. I guess I do not see the same message that you see. I do not see a minimalization of the Newtown tragedy. I see a maginification of it. The story that I see here is "Look how horrible this tragedy is when compared to the days that followed."

  2. Perhaps a map representation would be illuminating because so many of the children's deaths are located in the south. You could also see how strong the relationship between the death of children and other variables, such as prevalence of gun ownership...

  3. Visual representation is powerful and "with great power comes great responsibility". Turning tragic deaths into graphs is a delicate matter because it can make them more real than in a sentence or a paragraph.

    A friend expressed discomfort when he saw a graph about mass shootings that I created after the Newtown massacre ( He especially didn't like being confronted with the differentiation between children and adults. But then, he read op-eds and opinion pieces and realized that they were all trying to make the tragedy more real, something that the graph had achieved immediately for him.

    Trivia: The National Post is a right-wing newspaper from Canada that published several pieces in favor of the destruction of the national long-gun registry.

  4. I would guess that the National Post used so much real estate because they were hoping to illicit an emotional reaction, similar to the immediate aftermath. It is surprising coming from this paper which normally espouses anti-government regulation which might impede corporate profit.

    As a Canadian, I am stuck by how myopic the US news seems to be on this issue. There are few stories which do illustrate the magnitude of the gun deaths in America compared to other countries. Especially other countries who have experienced similar tragedies and gun regulation challenges. I created a viz with this in mind (

  5. As someone who lives in a state where gun crimes impact the psyche of children at play I find that any infographic which deals with such tragedies must first answer the why? A demographical representation of both the shooter and the school communities would calm the incessant question of why here? Comparing the redflags which were ignored before each shootings, i.e posting it on internet, telling friends and family, showing off the weapon to friends, etc; Comparing the types of weapons used across incidents and finally, security systems across schools which experience similar attacks.
    The emotive subject of killing another human being, especially school children will not likely garner any objectivity from another human being, esp. a content reasoner and that's why information designers must do just that, display as much comparative, analytical and correlation data as possible in order to give the readers a chance to explore what all these incidents mean. Gun control? Maybe, maybe not.

  6. The Slate orignial version is here- and features a map.

  7. A really useful infographic would be comparing gun shootings to other gun deaths, and those to the other types of crimes and deaths (accidental, homicide, manslaughter, etc.) in the country. As you say, a lot of real estate is being given to a type of event that is hundreds of times less likely to happen than, say, being poisoned or drowning accidentally. Perhaps we should be looking into stricter pool regulations before stricter gun ones...

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.