Knowledge transfer

Read fast, pay the price

At first, this looks like a decent chart despite the donut construct, which I cannot stand (but the Economist loves).


The accompanying text proclaimed: "Rock stars are famous for excess, and some pay the price".  The rest of the paragraph points out drug- and alcohol-related deaths, plus deaths due to "unhealthy lifestyles", which apparently include cancer and cardiovascular disease.

There is a gaping hole between what's on the chart and what's in the text.  They just talk past each other.

  • The chart invites us to compare the European experience to the American experience. Each donut presents the proportion of total deaths by causes of death. The top donut presents American rock-star deaths, the bottom European ones. But this comparison has zilch to do with the key point, which is how rock stars are different from the rest of us.  The chart tells us nothing about the rest of us.  The 20% death by cancer would be entirely unremarkable if 20% of non-rock-star deaths also were attributed to cancer!
  • We must also bear in mind that the base populations are rock stars who died young. This is a very specific demographic segment, and so the only valid point of reference are people who died young.  If we think along those lines, then among unmusical people, if they died young, what might have been the causes of death?  Drugs? Alcohol?  Accidents?  Suicide?  You bet.  I am not sure who is the authoritative source of such data but the CDC reported that among Americans aged 15-34 who died, the leading causes were "unintentional injury", suicides, homicides, cancer and heart disease.  Not much different from the above list...
  • The deaths depicted in the two donuts totaled fewer than 100, and yet percentages are given to one decimal place.  This creates a false sense of precision not justified by the sample size.
  • The deaths occurred over about 50 years.  It is very likely that the causes of premature death have shifted during this time span, making an aggregate analysis questionable.

Charting is much more than just aesthetics.  Some basic statistical common sense goes a long way.  This was observed long ago by Huff.

Source: "Rock stars: live fast, die young", Economist, Sept 4 2007.


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Based on the percentages, it seems the actual numbers are likely to be like this.


I thought charts were used to make it easier to understand large quantities of data and the relationship between different parts of the data for they are usually read more quickly than the raw data that they come from.
But those donuts are far from telling the truth. It's a sad example of what misinterpretation and lack of common sense can lead to.

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