Organizing the bookshelves
Talk in NYC

A serious magazine seeks our attention, badly

Reader Brian R. could not believe the Atlantic magazine would print a pile of chartjunk like this, and neither do we.

Pretty much every chart deserves its own entry, and they all fail our self-sufficiency test: when the actual data is removed from each chart, the failure is exposed, as one realizes that the graphical constructs do not add to the readers’ experience, and frequently subtract from it.

We'll focus on three examples where they tried to innovate, badly. The data has been stripped from each chart.

Atlantic_readingtime The chart shown on the right compares the amount of time spent reading by 15 to 19 year olds in 2007 and in 2009. We definitely see the severe drop in time spent but how many times higher were the average minutes in 2007?

(Amusingly, these books have 13 lines per page, not 12 lines, not 10 lines, not 15 lines.)

The next chart is similar, but comparing the minutes spent playing games. It’s a pie chart! Did our kids spend 100% of their weekend days in 2009 playing games?  

Atlantic_gamingtime No, it can’t be a pie chart. The caption said “average minutes”, not a proportion of a total; it’s a clock. Is it a 60-minute clock? But it’s a weekend day so maybe it’s a 24-hour clock. That can’t be, since the kids won’t be spending every hour of each weekend day playing games, would they? They do need to sleep, don’t they?

 So we cheat and look at the data. Average minutes in 2007: 46.8 minutes; in 2009, 61.2 minutes. Oh, it’s a malfunctioning clock. In the 2007 version, it’s about a minute too fast, and in the 2009 version, it’s a minute too slow. But who can blame the 2009 clock? You can’t show 61.2 minutes in a 60-minute clock.

With just two pieces of data, it's often the case that graphics are superfluous. Even if "entertainment" is desired, one ought to keep that from obscuring the data. Perhaps like this:



 OK, just one more. Not surprisingly, US book  sales are shown using stacks of books except that the data was not encoded in the height of the stacks, the thickness of the books, the number of books, or other usual suspects. The data is embedded into the width of a page plus the thickness of a book, assuming every book is identical in design.

Atlantic_usbooks Evidently, book sales declined from 2007 to 2009. By how much? It would be impossible to know without reading the actual data (which I have stripped away).

Since the data is given, we can use a little bit of algebra to figure out how many units are represented by the long side (L) and the short side (S) respectively:

Atlantic_booksales_mathThe Atlantic has invented some new math. The long line represents 1.1 billion units while the short line, 3.68 billion units!

What this means is that the difference shown in the picture of one long line is vastly exaggerated; the same difference in units would have been equivalent to one-third of the short line.


Other problems noticed by Brian:

Use of what looks like a Gaussian distribution instead of a bar.

The piggy bank graphic that distorts the saving rate.

The redundancy of pie charts next to simple percentages.

Also the presentation of statistics without any apparent relationship between the theme being presented.  For example, what does the increase in 3-D movies being produced have to do with the recession?
My guess more 3-D movies is more due to technology advances and implementation than recession economics.



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Jorge Camoes

Haven't you noticed the pie chart displaying "percent increase" (left column, near the bottom)? I love that one too.

This is not chartjunk. 3D and other "features" we love to hate is one thing. Technically wrong charts is something else. This is just stupid and ignorant.


It's ridiculous - why do I need to know the number of Americans who think Obama is a Muslim? And why are figures only shown from March 2008 and August 2010?

I just don't get it. Somebody gets paid to put this stuff together!

Peter Chang

Awesome find :) Pretty interesting math indeed and visualizations.

In the movies one, apparently 4*7.5 is about 23

and gotta love all the bell curves :) nice touch in one of that that goes over the top.

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