On Graphs

Note: Although my examples uses politics, this post is not for or against any candidate, party, platform, interest group, or any position in that nature.

The following is one of the most profound points that stuck with me from the statistics classes I’ve taken. Because of the amount of statistics available, it is easy to take a position and then find the numbers to support the position.

Graphs are visual representations of data. No matter if they are bars, points, lines, pies, scatter, area, picture, etc … they show the relationship between variables – usually two. Because visual representations help make a point, the graph maker can make decisions to best illustrate their point for the audience.

Several months ago, President Obama’s campaign used a graph similar to this regarding job growth. In my opinion, this was an effective graph to use because it visual delivered the message the campaign team desired. (Note: The campaign also showed 2008 decline in numbers that the graph to the right does not show – and no, I did not break my own rule about a political statement.)

Just as the campaign rightly and accurately displayed those numbers, the campaign stopped showing the commercial when the most recent numbers changed the trend line.

Graphs only display limited information – and in most cases – the two variables that the graph maker decides to display. This also means there is more to the story; just as the graph from Money magazine shows – which is something I know I stated here sometime in the past, but I just don’t know when.

Bottom line: Tread lightly on numbers because (assuming they are correct), they show one aspect of reality – especially if the numbers are coming from any politician or political entity. Don’t take their numbers for granted, thus examine it yourself.


25 thoughts on “On Graphs

  1. I do think if a politician (particularly one keen on being re-elected) uses a graph, they are only going to use one that shows them up favourably so therefore I don’t think graphs can be relied upon. Go out on to the streets and ask people, ‘Are things getting better or are things getting worse?’ – that’s where you’ll hear the truth xx


    • Spiced,
      Any politician uses graphs for one of two reasons – to show themselves in positive light or their opponent in negative light – either way, for their own gain. Thanks for stopping by.


  2. A very interesting post, Frank, and a public service too. In my long work life, I worked on many different projects, among them, scientific research. At one time, I helped publish certain research in the field of microbiology, and found it fascinating; learning a whole lot, even though it wasn’t really part of the job. And one of the things I discovered (and I bring this up because it is in no way connected to politics), was that statistics can be very misleading, if the person using the statistics has an axe to grind. These scientists were interested in getting more grant money, and by asking questions in a certain way, they could produce ‘wow’ statistics. Since then, I have looked at stats as an illustration, but not much more than that.


    • Shimon,
      Thanks for sharing your very interesting perspective about statistics. I questioned both the accuracy and the completeness of the numbers, and you add the bias in getting the numbers. Simply outstanding. Absolutely – graphs are an illustration, but there is much more to be told. Thanks for sharing your experience!


  3. When I saw the title of you post I was a little hesitant. Math and statistics, well let’s just say there was a reason I studied history. I’m no good with numbers. I love when campaigns put up graphs on their sites and on commercials. Are they supposed to make me feel better? If I can’t feed my family, why would I want to look at a graph.


    • TBM,
      Ah yes – studying history to avoid mathematics. 😉 That’s ok, because if you needed numbers or numbers crunched, you get someone else to do it. After all, one has to know their own strengths and weaknesses. Thanks for visiting.


  4. I like the line “…a made-up stat is not a stat, but a lie”. There are many ways to tell lies and politicians seen to find most of them.
    My favorite take on the subject comes from former President Lyndon B Johnston, “[Quoting economic statistics] is a lot like peeing down your leg. It seems hot to you, but it never does to anyone else.” Maybe someone should hand Obama a towel???


    • Paradise,
      Definitely an interesting quote. Just to be devil’s advocate, let us not forget that the truths that statistics can provide. But to support your point, I find it interesting that opposing views will select snips from the same report to support their view. Thanks for commenting … and I hope you day in paradise isn’t too demanding.


  5. Interesting stuff. It reminds me of the role graphs, charts, and statistics played in H. Ross Perot’s 1988 third party campaign against President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. I’m left with the thought that graphs, charts, and statistics can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.


    • Twixt,
      Including his? (I couldn’t resist that one) … but it reminded me of Sen Kyl’s statement on the senate floor about 90% of Planned Parenthood’s spending. Thanks for commenting.


  6. Since we seem to be commenting by quotes here, I’ll go with Mark Twain’s ‘Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable’.

    When we are advised to chew thoroughly before swallowing, this does not apply only to food.


  7. I’m with Alex, this commenting section has turned into a quotes forum, so here’s mine thanks to my Dear Old Dad who is fond of saying, “Figures don’t lie but liars figure.” But, I’m on the same page as you about not taking the numbers for granted. I also consider the source.


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