There are many candidates for the best visual display of quantitative information. But how about a prize for worst display of information? Call it the anti-Tufte. There has been some competition of late. The graph can’t be merely misleading, or distracting. That’s too darn easy! A really bad display has several characteristics: (1) it has to overstate the certainty of the underlying data; and (2) by using pictures, it must reinforce our biases. A recent example is the Obama Cabinet/Private Experience graphic.
Here’s another example I’ve been thinking about lately: the claim that offensive linemen are smarter than other players on the field. Think about it. Doesn’t it just feel true? And here’s the graph that popularized the claim:
Ben Fry, a smart fella by all accounts, created the graph. The size of the circles represent mean scores by position on the Wonderlic, a 12 minute, 50-question, intelligence test which players take during the combine before the NFL draft. This graphic is often deployed to support the cliché that players closer to the ball have to be smarter. But closer examination has led me to believe that the claim – and the graph – are bunk. And bunk of a particular sort: misleading empiricism of the sort that reinforces racial stereotypes.