Friday, March 12, 2010

Can't Be Both: Visually Displaying Inconsistencies

I like finding inconsistencies. It means that something is wrong with my argument. Inevitably, addressing the inconsistency leads to greater nuance in my analysis. That, I would argue, is a good thing.

One of my most popular recent posts (see the "Top Posts" box to the right) was on form and content and what intelligence products say by the way they look.

Today, I saw this infographic (via FlowingData, by way of the Consumerist, and originating at The Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine) and it started me thinking along those same lines again:

Assuming the data is accurate (and I have no reason to suspect it), it does a good job of pointing out the inconsistency between what the government says we should eat and what foods the government actually funds (through subsidies).

Understanding how to display these kinds of inconsistencies is important to intel analysts, too. For example, one of the most common inconsistencies leveled against the intelligence community is that it is both all powerful and incompetent. It can't be both (obviously) but how can you capture this inconsistency in a graphic? See my graphic design-challenged attempt below:
I simply used Google to search for the phrase "CIA is all powerful" and "CIA is incompetent" and then made the graph based on the number of hits the two phrases received. It is not rocket science and it is definitely not a very good graphic but it makes the point, I think. Furthermore, I can imagine a much more complex graphic muddying the waters

  • By the way, ADM Blair will be glad to hear, I suspect, that the phrase "DNI is incompetent" yields no hits...Of course, neither does the phrase "DNI is all powerful".
  • Note, too, the powerful new metric I have created: The I-TOT -- the Intelligence is Taking Over The-world index (Hat tip to NGA for the idea).
Lesson learned? Simplicity wins. Simple graphics communicate big inconsistencies in analytic findings best. This is probably pretty obvious to a graphic designer but, for me, it was a bit of an insight.
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