In my last blog I talked about a simple chart on Morning Joe, which was presented by Steven Rattner. I submitted that when we see data presented in the media or especially by politicians, we should judge it in terms of how a researcher would have presented the same data (because of course researchers are free of bias...well let's leave that for another blog). I gave Mr. Rattner a pass last time, but his presentation of a chart on infrastructure was misleading and would only have pleased a client who wanted misleading data to prove a point.
In this case he presented a chart showing infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP . It showed a massive drop from the high in the 1950's to the low of today. The chart had a y axis that went from 0% to 1.5% which made the drop easier to see. Nothing wrong with that (assuming those viewing the chart understood that it was not based on 0-100%).
The chart led the panel to decide that we need to massively increase spending (to be fair, this was a position they already held so the chart simply backed up prior thinking). Many referenced new airports, highways or railroads in China and how we would no longer be able to compete with them if we didn't match them.
Now of course it is likely we need to spend more on infrastructure, but if I presented this chart to a client, they likely would have asked some pretty tough questions and ultimately found the chart to be of no use even to set a context for decision making. For example, they might have asked:
Ultimately, the chart was intended to answer the question, "What should we be spending on infrastructure?" I don't believe it achieves that. If I presented a chart like this I likely wouldn't be asked back. Instead, I would need to consider many questions, including those above, and present data such that it became a framework for decision making. I would leave out those details that add nothing and consolidate others into comprehensive charts that quickly make the point. Of course, I'd also build to a chart indicating where the greatest need for increase spending is.
Perhaps this is an advantage we have as researchers. We can decide to leave out superfluous data (as I discussed in my last blog) which are critical to decision making. I suspect that Mr. Rattner, even if he wanted to, would not be given enough air time to explain all the complexities of the data he presented. Fair enough, but if we are faced with a situation in which we don't have adequate data to provide certainty, we have an obligation to point out that fact.
As for Morning Joe, I suggest if they are going to present numbers like this out of context, they'd be better served by skipping the charts and just discuss anecdotes...
Rich brings a passion for quantitative data and the use of choice to understand consumer behavior to his blog entries. His unique perspective has allowed him to muse on subjects as far afield as Dinosaurs and advanced technology with insight into what each can teach us about doing better research.