Grasp and Go – Bad Information Graphics in TV Election Coverage

November 9, 2008 § 6 Comments


“Let’s flip back to CNN,” my mom said, “I can’t understand the graphics at the bottom.”

Either could I—at least in the short time that ABC gave me to figure out what I was reading and consider its ramifications. So we watched CNN, even though I think we both liked ABC’s studio hosting better.

There were many problems with ABC’s information graphics, but most of it stems from their decision to show the results from both the Senate races and the Presidential race in the same graphic space at the same time. While showing both results might be a good notion, ABC needed to be more careful with how they presented the visual information.

In all instances, a viewer should be able to quickly identify and understand the on-screen visual information. Or more concisely: Grasp and go. ABC’s design severely inhibits the viewer’s ability to “grasp and go” by ignoring the power of simple visual cues, such as the use of proximity and space. ABC’s ignorance of the visual power of proximity and space starts a whole host of problems, causing a viewer’s eye to group the visual information vertically, like a column or a list. All of which would be great, except that ABC wanted its viewers to read the graphics horizontally, like reading a book.

Reading the information vertically happens for multiple reasons, the first being how close the check boxes are to the left of each name. However, the opposing candidate in each race is actually off to the right, just out of my immediate visual field. For example, if I look at Obama’s name and checkbox, I cannot miss seeing Hagan’s name and checkbox. It’s just there. Conversely, McCain’s name is in another visual “sector” that I have to move my eyes for. So, in one view, I see Obama and Hagan. In another view, I see McCain and Dole. To compare across columns (which is basically what they are), I have to move my eyes across the screen. Further complicating this is that ABC’s design runs counter to the common life experience of an election ballot’s vertical layout. Placing some space or a hard visual line between the two rows would have been immensely helpful. Not a cure-all, but helpful.

Finally, because there is no space or visual cue to separate the rows of information, the viewers’ eyes automatically group the colors into one piece of information. Again, this is completely counter to what ABC wanted us to glean: That there are two different sets of results showing different political races for different states. Combine all this with the 4-5 seconds a viewer has to read and comprehend the results before the results switch to the next race and it’s all too much.

CNN, it was, then. Where they may have had ridiculous holograms and hyperactive coverage, but at least I could understand their information graphics.


Election Design

October 31, 2008 § 5 Comments

As has been talked about much this election, many people are using “early voting” as a way to ensure their vote is cast and counted. This is an important trend that faces the larger issues of a democracy with 300 million people and 50 states, namely making sure the process of voting is fair for all involved.

Frankly, the notion of everyone voting on one day is archaic and needs to be re-thought. I’m not sure the form this should take, but given how important the perception of a fair election is, why not change from Election Day to Election Week? This way the polls could be open from 7:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Monday through Friday, allowing those who can’t get off work for whatever reason, have an emergency, are infirm, elderly, or those who experience mishaps at the polling station, the time to vote. Is the act of voting, and subsequently, Democracy, not important enough that we can’t agree to lower the bar for those who wish to vote?

Argumentation Tactics in Politics

September 2, 2008 § 2 Comments

If you were to read an article citing an epidemiological study that said, “Eating too many potato chips causes heart disease”, there’s a good chance you would take it as the truth and cut back (or cut out) your potato chip intake. I mean, why not, right? After all, the article’s conclusion aligns with your general observations of the world that people who eat a lot of potato chips tend to not be healthy people.

The problem, though, is that the conclusion isn’t always true. Heck, it may not even be true most of the time. Hypothetically, if 100,000 people eat potato chips every day and 20,000 get heart disease, it would be just as true to say that “80% of people who eat way too many potato chips don’t even get heart disease.” So the only thing that’s really true there—the moral, if you will—is that it doesn’t seem like potato chips are all that good for you and you shouldn’t eat them too often.

So how can epidemiologists (think: epidemic) declare such a cause-effect relationship? Crudely, the way they would have figured out the potato chip-heart disease link would be looking at a bunch of people with heart disease and a bunch of people who don’t have it and looking to see what was different about the people with heart disease. They looked closer and saw that those who ate too many potato chips got heart disease at a higher rate than those who didn’t eat many potato chips. And voila! We have cause.

On the other side, laboratory scientists do the exact opposite to establish cause: They go in to a lab, perform an experiment with a known set of variables and try to produce the same result over and over and over again until they can say, “We know, through rigorous experimentation, that this is true.” And this is how the entire world of public health studies pretty much works—a constant battle between population studies and laboratory science. (As a side note: Epidemiology wasn’t even considered a “science” until the 1960s when epidemiologists linked smoking to lung cancer.)

The potato chip example is true not only in scientific debates of all kinds, it’s also true in argument: One viewpoint comes from the top and looks for patterns (epidemiology), the other comes from the bottom and looks for exacting, direct evidence (lab science).

Take the issue of climate change. There are many people who look at climate change and don’t question the validity of it. Their general experience points them to the idea that, indeed, the weather seems to be changing and there is a great deal of carbon and other gases we’re spewing into the atmosphere that wouldn’t be there if not for us. So, humans are causing the climate to change because we know these gases cause these problems and we should curtail them to prevent all these hurricanes, fires, floods, and skin cancer.

These would be your epidemiologists, inferring cause from pattern.

On the other hand, those who deny climate change (or at least question how much we are responsible for it), say that, indeed, maybe those gases do have a greenhouse effect and interrupt some part of the ecosystem, but how much do those have an effect? Is it possible the earth is just going through a natural cycle of warming? What can we reasonably expect from the climate and atmosphere? And all those hurricanes and fires and floods? We just have better equipment to monitor them, better communication to alert of them, and the internet and 24 hour news to sensationalize them.

These people would be your laboratory scientists, inferring cause only from known variables and repeatability.

And for the people who believe in climate change, those who question it are morally reprehensible, close-minded, dangerous morons. And for those who question climate change, those who don’t question it are irresponsible, reactionary, touchy-feely, emotional nincompoops.

What a world, huh?

And what does this have to do with argumentation tactics in politics? Glad you asked.

In argument, the tactic of the laboratory scientist is to pull a problem apart, to expose flaws in an argument, belief, or policy. The tactic of the epidemiologist is to shorten a problem by finding overarching patterns pointing to factors that are either problematic or successful. And the politicians will use these tactics over and over again in the battle for your hearts, minds, and ultimately, your vote.

They will do it on health care. They will do it on foreign policy. Religion. Iraq. Energy.”Experience”. Age. Economic policy. Everything. A constant battle back and forth between epidemiology and laboratory science.

While it is tempting to say the Democrats are epidemiologists and Republicans are lab scientists, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, each party has its own unique mix of issues that they view “epidemiologically” or “laboratorally” and they will refute each other using whichever technique is most prudent at the time.

So, as you watch the debates, read quotes, and watch speeches, remember that just as a laboratory scientist caught up in detail might miss the big picture and the epidemiologist might miss the important detail that ruins a theory, so will politicians from time to time. They will then try to place each other in a position to either look like a morally reprehensible, close-minded, dangerous moron or an irresponsible, reactionary, touchy-feely, emotional nincompoop.

Don’t fall for it.

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