Thursday, August 1, 2019

Yes, the chart is misleading, but the numbers are still alarming

For some reason I missed the discussion about the following graph published by The New York Times. It's a great example of how misleading a chart can be if we show just the most extreme data points and ignore the rest (you'll see some examples of this in How Charts Lie.) Here's a detailed critique.


Georgetown University's Erik Voeten explains that the problem is that the researchers who generated the data asked people to rate the importance of democracy on a 10-point scale. The NYT graph depicts just the percentage of people who chose 10 (“absolutely important”). Voeten suggests to chart the average scores instead, which is a good idea; there is a clear decline, but it isn't as steep:



Jeff Guo proposed this alternative graph, showing the percentage of U.S. respondents born in different decades who chose each of the scores:

Guo's and Voeten's charts are better than the NYT one, as they provide a more complete overview of the survey, but all of them alarm me greatly: just over one third of people in the U.S. born between the '70s and '90s say that democracy is “absolutely important” and the percentage who are neutral or lukewarm about it has risen sharply.

UPDATE: Kieran Healy has just reminded me that he discussed this example in his book.