Pictures: How They Try to Distract You (Part 3)

Note: This is part 3 in a series for high school students about reading and interpreting science on the internet. Read the intro and get the index here, or go back to part 2 here.

As any good internet person knows, you can’t have a good story without a featured image…pictures being worth a thousand words and all that jazz. Nine times out of ten if you see a story pop up on Facebook, it’s going to have an image attached.  Those deceptive and possibly false memes I was talking about in Part 1? All basically words on images. For most stories, there are really two different types of images: graphs or technical images and what I’m going to call “narrative” images.  In this section I’m going to cover the narrative images or what I call:

Narrative Images: Framing the Story

Okay, so what’s the problem here?

In Part 2 I mentioned a study that was mostly about headlines, but that had a really interesting point about pictures as well. In that study, they purposefully mismatched the headline and the picture in a story about a crime. Basically they had the headline read something like “Father of two murdered” and showed a picture of the criminal, or they had it read “Local man murders father of two” and showed a picture of the victim. Later, people who had read a “victim” headline with a picture of a murderer actually felt more sympathy towards the murderer, and those who read a “criminal” headline with a picture of a victim liked the victim less. That’s the power of pictures. We know this, which is why newspapers can end up getting sued for putting the wrong picture on a cover even if they don’t mention any names.

Any picture used to frame a story will potentially end up influencing how we remember that story. A few weeks ago, there was a big kerfluffle over some student protests at Oberlin. The NY Post decided to run the story with a picture of Lena Dunham, an alum of the college who is in no way connected to the protests. In a couple of months, my bet is a good number of people who read that story will end up remembering that she had something to do with all this.

What should we be looking out for?

When you read an article, at the very least you should ask how the picture matches the story. Most of the time this will be innocuous, but don’t forget for a minute the picture is part of an attempt to frame whatever the person is saying.  This can be deviously subtle too.  One of the worst examples I ever heard of was pointed out by Scott Alexander after a story about drug testing welfare recipients hit the news.  The story came with lots of headline/picture combos like this one from Jezebel:


Now check that out! Only .2% of welfare applicants failed a drug screening! That’s awesome.  But what Scott Alexander pointed out in that link up there is that urine drug testing actually has a false positive rate higher than .2%.  This means if you tested a thousand people that you knew weren’t on drugs, you’d get more than a .2% failure rate.  So what happened here? How’d it get so low?

The answer lies in that technically-not-inaccurate word “screening”.  Once you saw that picture, your brain probably filled in immediately what “screening” meant, and it conjured up a picture of a bunch of people taking a urine drug test. The problem is, that’s not what happened. The actual drug screening used here was a written drug screening. That’s what those people failed, and that’s why we didn’t get a whole bunch of false positives.  Now I have no idea if the author did this on purpose or not, but it certainly leaves people with a much different impression than the reality.

Why do we fall for this stuff?

Every time we see a picture, we’re processing information with a slightly different part of our brain. In the best case scenario, this enhances our understanding of information and engages us more fully. In the worse case scenario, it skews our memory of written information, like in the murderer/victim study I mentioned above. This actually works in both directions….asking people questions with bad verbal information can skew their visual memory of events.  Even people who are quite adept at interpreting numbers, words and data can forget to consider the picture attached.

So what can we do about it?

Awareness is key. Any time you see a picture, you have to think “what is this trying to get me to think?”  You have to remember that we are visual creatures, and if text worked better than visuals commercials wouldn’t look the way they do.

Now, before I go, I have to say a few words about infographics. These terrible things are an attempt to take entire topic and make them in to nothing but a narrative photo. They suck. I hate them. Everything I say in this entire series can be assumed to go TRIPLE for infographics. Every time you see an infographic, you should remember that 95% of them are inaccurate. I just made that up, but if you keep that rule in mind you’ll never be caught off guard. Think Brilliant has the problem summed up very nicely with this very meta infographic about the problem with infographics:

Think Brilliant has more here.

The key with infographics is much like those little picture memes that are everywhere: consider them wrong at baseline, and only trust after verifying.

If you want more, read Part 4 here.

Soviet Propaganda, Infographic Style

In “How to Lie With Statistics“, the author frequently comments about Soviet Propaganda and how bad it is. Being a member of a cynical generation, Huff’s annoyance at an oppressive regime using data skewing to seem better than it was seemed almost quaint….I mean of course they were.

Even given my cynicism and lack of Russian skills, I have to admit these infographics from the Duke U library are pretty interesting.

This one’s my favorite, because none of the bar heights make any sense:

Moral of the story?  Every time you share a bad infographic, the Communists win.

Fair Market Rent and Another Dubious Infographic

I’ve seen this infographic a few places now, and it has been causing me some furrowed brow time:

Supposedly, this is a graphic showing how many hours you would have to work per week at a minimum wage job in order to afford a two bedroom apartment in each of the given states.  This version appears to be a year or so out of date, but here’s the original report.
I had all sorts of questions about this when I saw it, so of course I went digging.  
To clarify the parameters, affordable is defined to mean 30% of income, and this chart assumes only one income earner per apartment.  Availability of low income housing or other programs is not taken in to account, which is probably where I find this chart most misleading.  Massachusetts has a fairly extensive Section 8 housing program, and from my understanding New York and California do as well.  I couldn’t find a ranking for the state distribution of aid levels, but I’d wager the less affordable the state, the more they give out in assistance.
As for the fair market value rents….I couldn’t find where they got their figure from.  Rents in Massachusetts vary wildly between the 3 largest city areas.  Boston rents run high….mostly because students rent most of the apartments near the colleges.  Springfield and Worcester however are much cheaper.  The MA website for Section 8 housing cites the difference between Boston and Worcester as almost $450 a month.  It appears the number used above is an average of several areas.  
If you dig further in the report however, it becomes even more interesting.  Apparently New England is the only section of the country that doesn’t report whole counties when reporting fair market rates for renters, New England only reports rates for metro areas and surrounding communities.  Is the northeast really that much pricier than the rest of the country, or does their reporting just make them look that way?
While I ultimately appreciate the issue at hand with this chart, I think it would be nice to see a more comprehensive chart including states efforts to address the high housing cost.  On the chart above, NH appears slightly more affordable, but if you google “section 8 housing nh” you will find a lot of people telling you to save yourself the trouble and move to Massachusetts.  Bigger cities tend to mean higher rents AND more social programs.  Throwing them all in to one big average is not the best way of representing information in a usable fashion.

Cutting and pasting OR always check the source data

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like infographics.

Normally this is because the infographic itself is misleading, but today I found an equally hideous incarnation of this.

It all started over at, where I was greeted with this graph:

This pretty much set off my alarm bells immediately.  I had quite a few questions about all of this, as the graph obviously said very little about the methodology.  Who was included?  How did they account for gaps in years worked?  Most importantly, did they control for profession?

I clicked on the link provided, which took me to this blog post on the New York Times website.  It shows the same picture as above, with an intro of the following two sentences:

We’ve written before about how the gender pay gap grows with age. Generally speaking, the older a woman is, the wider the gap between what she earns and what her male counterpart earns.

I was struck by that phrase “male counterpart”.  Were we really talking about counterparts here?  I was curious again about the profession question.  It struck me that many female dominated professions are actually “terminal” professions….i.e. the job you enter can remain pretty unchanged for years: teachers, nurses, therapists, etc.  On the other hand, many male dominate professions have far more steps on the ladder, which would be a pretty non-sexist explanation for the continued growth seen throughout the decades.

With this in mind, I went to find the methodology for the graph.  I not only found the methodology, but the rest of the infographic.

As it turns out, the profession issue was directly addressed on the original….but it was completely edited out in subsequent reprints.  Profession does have an effect on earnings growth, and the original captured that.  I’m a little concerned about how far this graphic went without all of the important qualifying information they took care to include.

 Interestingly, the NYT columnist did actually write a more comprehensive article on the topic 2 years ago that she linked to in this article, but I’m surprised she didn’t do a recap.  With the ease of transport of info on the web, I don’t think the cut and paste job is an okay thing to do.  It sets up less diligent bloggers to merely reprint, and it undermines the original work.  Someone out there is quoting this right now, having no idea that they’re missing 2/3rds of the information.

Bad data, bad.

Some infographic love for my little brother

My wonderfully liberal little brother is having a rough week, so I thought I’d cheer him up in the best way I know how….by criticizing a Republican infographic.

He sent me this one this morning, and while it’s a little sparse, the bottom right hand corner caught my eye:

Now, I have no idea how much was given to Solyndra, or how many jobs wind energy has left, but I do know a thing or two about gas prices and infographic figures.

First, those gas pumps are totally deceptive. $3.79 is almost exactly 2 times $1.85.   Fine.  However, let’s look closely at those gas pumps:

I pulled out the ruler when I cropped the photo, and confirmed my suspicions.  The larger pump in the picture doubles both the height and the width of the first pump.  That’s not twice as big….that’s four times as big.  I’m sure they’d defend it by pointing to the dashed lines in the background and saying only the height was supposed to be reflective, but it’s still deceptive.  Curious what a gas pump actually twice as big would look like?  Here you go….original low price on the left, original “double” price on the right, actual double in the middle.

Graphics aside, let’s look at the numbers.

2009 was just not that long ago, and I know that $1.85 was quite the anomalous price at the time.  I’ve seen that stat more than once recently, and I have been annoyed by it every time.  Tonight, I decided to check my memory on it, and see if that dip really was the aberration I remember it being.  Don’t remember either?  Here’s the graph of average gas prices since 1978, per the BLS generator:

That dip towards the end there with the arrow?  That hit right as Obama was taking office.  In July of 2008, gas was an average of  $4.15 per gallon.  By January of 2009, it was $1.84.    I have not a clue why that drop happened, but I do know that to treat that $1.85 number as though it was standard at the time is a misrepresentation.

You can see this a bit better if you isolate George W Bush’s presidency:

Now, you could accurately say that George Bush took office with gas prices at $1.53 and left with them at $1.74….but clearly that would ignore a whole lot of data in between.  
Now here’s the averages and standard deviations for each term of the presidencies:
GWB – 1st term GWB – 2nd term BHO – current term
Average Gas Price 1.63 2.78 2.99
Standard Deviation 0.22 0.56 0.56
Now, none of this adjusted for inflation.  By adjusting the yearly averages to 2010 dollars, I got the second term of GWB to $2.99, and the current term for BHO to $3.00.  
You don’t have to like Barack Obama, and you certainly don’t have to like gas prices.  No matter what your political affiliation, I think we can all agree on one thing: ALWAYS beware of infographics.