Tim Harford: Don’t Be Quick To Trust Infographics

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Sometimes, an infographic is just a more convincing way to lie, warns ‘undercover economist’ Tim Harford

Infographics and complex data visualisations can obscure the truth rather than make it easier to understand, warned economist, Financial Times journalist and book author Tim Harford during his keynote at the Teradata Universe conference in Prague.

He compared some infograpics to ‘dazzle’ camouflage, popular between the First and Second World War as a way to disguise warships and confuse the enemy. Just like ships in dazzle, they seem to put themselves on display, open to scrutiny. However, the data behind these beautiful pictures can be shaped and twisted to fit a particular agenda.

SS Empress of Russia - 1918Information is beautiful

“Many modern infographics are like Dazzle camouflage – they are designed to attract attention, they are designed to attract eyeballs, they are designed to sell us something. What they are not designed to do is tell us the truth,” said Harford. He added that the real value of infographics depends on their approach to statistics, rather than appealing visual design.

According to the ‘undercover economist’, Florence Nightingale was creating data visualisations of mortality rates at British hospitals as far back as 1855. Images similar to modern infographics have also appeared in newspapers and magazines as cartoons, often conveying a political message. This means some of the problems with visual representation of information have existed for more than 150 years.

“Problem number one is data visualisations being used to tell a story to manipulate us,” said Harford. “Problem number two – data visualisation tools and data have become so open, so easy to use that we are able to create a convincing infographic even when we don’t really understand the situation.

“And the third problem is we are able to produce really compelling illustrations of the tings that we really can’t measure.”

Harford suggested that as consumers, we should be more critical of the information we receive, and expose logical fallacies when we see them. “Not everybody is telling a story that is as true or as important as Florence Nightingale’s. We need to exercise our own judgement, our own scepticism whenever we are faced with beautiful information,” he concluded.

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