Friday, November 11, 2016

Now more than ever: Call out data and visualization bullshit

After the results of the election, we're going to witness a shit storm of bad data and misleading graphics, coming from all directions. If you follow this blog, if you've read my books, you already know where I stand: Every single one of us has a responsibility to call out bullshit, and to fight against it with reason and evidence, regardless of what agenda that bullshit is trying to push. We mustn't sit on the fence and witness the deluge of misinformation in ironic silence. That's irresponsible.

This will require our keeping an eye on all sorts of media publications to the left and to the right, even —or particularly— those that we deeply dislike.

Here's an example: I visited the #buildTheWall hashtag on Twitter, and saw that people were spreading this story and video by Infowars. Read the story and watch the video to understand how crooks like Alex Jones are unashamedly using every trick in the data trickster textbook to manipulate their audience: First, confounding correlation and causation —sanctuary cities mean more Democratic vote, when it's likely the other way around: liberal cities are more protective of undocumented immigrants;— second, talking about a “sea of red” on a map, when Jones and his colleagues know perfectly well that geographical area isn't proportional to population density. The blue areas have a much larger population than the red ones.

You may think that this effort is pointless, that you'll just be preaching to the choir. I don't think so, for two reasons: Good information does change minds, as Tom Stafford explains in his For Argument's Sake; also, if you promote your critiques using the same Twitter hashtags and social media channels that crooks use to spread their bullshit, or if you post them in their websites as a comment, a part of their audience will see them. An overwhelming majority of them will dismiss you, and even attack you, but a tiny portion will have a small seed of doubt planted in their brains. A single seed does nothing, but thousands will. Some will bloom.

So get ready. Join the movement. Help build the wall, the right kind of wall: a wall made of truthful information. Let's keep bullshit at bay.