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.

The Dreaded Conversation about Politics

November 2, 2008 § 2 Comments

As we’re closing down (thankfully) on the election season, I’ve been somewhat encouraged, but mostly saddened at how incapable so many of us are to openly discussing politics. This is just a rough thought for now, but I think one of the reasons we have a hard time is because we talk about policies that we’ll never agree on or key on reductionist arguments about which candidate is a bigger hypocrite or slimebag. We then tell ourselves whatever we want to tell ourselves about which one is worse. And then we dig in for trench warfare.

Frankly, this sucks.

Instead, I prefer to think that all candidates will always appear hypocritical or slimy when put under the unblinking public eye. Because of that, we should just assume that all politicians are hypocritical slimebags so that we can move on to real conversation. (Yes, background information on candidates is important, but I think constantly breaking candidates down actually serves to destroy voters’ ability to have meaningful, non-combative discussions about a candidate.)

So, I began thinking about what qualities good political conversations tend to have. And I think that most quality political conversations aren’t a debate about policies or character, they’re actually conversations where we think together about the underpinnings of politics, not debate policy. Policy debate too quickly devolves into unalterable, unbending personal beliefs, like abortion or gun control. That won’t go anywhere.

While this is merely the roughest draft of an idea, I’ve quickly jotted down what I like to think about when I think about politics with someone:

• How is society at-large reacting to a candidate? Why? Can it be overcome? How?
• What is a campaign’s message and strategy?
• Why is the campaign espousing that message? Who are they targeting? Me? You? Who?
• Who might the campaign be alienating through their message and strategy? Will it matter?
• How is one candidate trying to “frame” the other? Why? How does this affect you?

I think that by looking at a campaign and candidate through these questions gives context to a candidate’s statements, arguments, and message. By seeing the context, you see how a candidate is poking at your pressure points to get a reaction (i.e. vote) out of you. But I also think that by two or more people thinking together about the context of a message and strategy, it can allow for more fruitful, less hostile discussions between potential voters.

I don’t think this list is exhaustive by any means, and I don’t know if it will help anyone at all, but these are the things I think about when I think about what I like to think about regarding politics. Or, in the parlance of our times, I focus on the game, not the players.

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.

Indiana McCain and the Obama of Doom

August 1, 2008 § 7 Comments

Two nights ago, a friend (and Iraq War veteran) was walking down the sidewalk wearing an Obama 2008 shirt when a man, eating dinner with his wife looked up and said, “So, you’re a communist?”

That same night, a person in the bar shared this story with my friend: “I was wearing an Obama shirt in here the other night and three guys surrounded me and started harassing me about the shirt. Realizing I was outnumbered, I asked them what they would like me to do. They made me turn my shirt inside-out.”

Another recent evening, I was driving my mom’s car, which has an Obama bumper sticker on it. As I was using a drive-thru ATM, a truck pulled up behind me and began chanting Obama’s name out his window, but not in a good way. More like a tone that invoked the ghosts of the KKK. I didn’t look back, I just pulled away and acted like I didn’t hear them.

And then there’s this zinger, brought to light by an acquaintance: “I hope every racist person in America comes out and votes against Obama.”

Indiana is an interesting place.

What strikes me as particularly interesting about all this isn’t how potentially and frighteningly racist it all might be, it’s how those who are on the verge of losing power are reacting to its potential loss and what that reaction implies. For many years, Republicans have complained about how Democrats have treated the Bush 43 presidency with anti-Bush bumper stickers, protests, the “Anybody But Bush” anti-movement, and of course, the constant jokes and derision. But now, with the tables turned ever so slightly, Republicans seem to be just as spiteful and hateful as the Democrats have been of Bush 43. If that double standard weren’t bad enough, this all smacks of me-first politics and a startling lack of patriotism.

My friends, something has to change.

In his new book, The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop discusses how Americans have been surrounding ourselves with the people, music, movies, talk radio, and TV shows that reinforce our beliefs. And between growing up in Indiana, living in San Francisco for 6 years, Pittsburgh for 2 years, and traveling around the United States this summer, I’ve seen how true this is. This constant self-reinforcement makes it seem normal to believe whatever it is that you believe. Then, when you say something to someone that you would normally be free to say in your community, you may find yourself shocked that others don’t feel the same. At all. In other words, what seems obvious to you does not seem obvious to them, sometimes aggressively and violently so.

What seems to be happening is that within these homogenous zones of like-minded people, social norms change. By that, I mean the prevailing thought patterns, fears, and paranoia begin to change conversations, and those conversations create an atmosphere which reinforces different fears, paranoia, and ultimately, the collective vision of the world and how it should run (and who should run it). And one could argue that those who are constantly surrounded by this atmosphere get sucked in to a different mindset devoid of check-and-balance thought created by healthy debate (See: Germany 1940).

Further, with how ideologically divided the country seems to be, entering into a discussion with someone who may be a non-like-minded individual has turned into an exercise of anxiety. Will this get hostile? Will they lash out at me? Will I lash out at them? Will this end our friendship? Do we have to agree to be friends? How can we disagree agreeably? How can I let myself be wrong when what I feel is so right? All of these anxieties creates a paralyzing fear of having any sort of discussion, debate, or dialogue about the issues — the type of discussions where ideas are unpacked, vocabulary is sorted through, and we form a greater ideal or plan of action. Instead, we become isolated and self-fulfilling, bitching about the “other side” and how they don’t get it.

Do we no longer have the desire to reach a higher road, a conversation about what we want, why we want it, and how we could get there? Can we, as a collective people, not begin to design a proposed path through dialogue? One that sees each of us open to ideas that we may not like, allows us to see how someone’s intent is often very different from their action, and sees us begin to create a new social awareness through conversation? Maybe even one that re-centers social norms? If not, I fear that the homogenization going on will eventually create such polarized pockets of misunderstanding, fear, and action that we will fracture as a people.

This year, I believe both McCain and Obama are both capable of considering the other side, openly. And that is cause for hope. But also fear.

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