December 16, 2010
I'm reading the book Fault Lines by former IMF chief economist Raghuram G. Rajan of the U of Chicago economics dept. It's a pretty good read, but what struck me while flipping through it is that it's solid text: no quantitative graphics, no tables of numbers, just paragraphs. The sole thing to interrupt the flow of paragraphs across a couple of hundred pages is a poem by 18th century economist Bernard de Mandeville.
That lack of tables and graphs can't be natural for an economics professor, can it? The publisher must have told him what statistician Andrew Gelman's publisher told him when he wrote Red State, Blue State, that each graph in the book cuts sales in half.
So, does everybody really hate graphs? If so, why does everybody who gives a presentation think they have to do it in Powerpoint? (As in Abe Lincoln's Gettysburg Address graph comparing New Nations -87 Years to Now.) Do audience members actually look at the graphs? Or do they just appreciate the chance during the work day to veg out in a dark room with a glowing screen? "Powerpoint: It's Almost Like Watching TV While Getting Paid!"
Or did people used to like graphs until Powerpoint came along?
Do the books that the people who sit next to you on the airplane read have graphs in them? A large fraction of people in airplanes are traveling to meetings infested by Powerpoint graphs: if there is a graph in their book, do they consider it work?
I like graphs. I had Minard's now-famous graph-map of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia up on my office wall for years. It worked as a sort of secret club handshake for people walking by. One out every zillion people who walked down the hall past my office would recognize it and introduce himself.
I find that graphs always take me about five times longer to finish creating than I expected. For example, in VDARE, I've got a graph that answers the obvious question (obvious to you and me, at least) about those PISA international school achievement test scores that everybody was pontificating upon last week. My graph shows where the PISA test scores of the four main racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. would fall compared to the national average scores for the 65 countries that took the test.
A simple idea, right? Yet it took me forever to get the graph right so the answer is clear. (First, I had to find the American race numbers, which don't appear in any of the hundreds of pages of data posted by the OECD last week.) Then, I had to fiddle for hours to get the graph to look less confusing.
I think it finally came out okay. But, if everybody out there secretly hates graphs, then I'll stop wasting time making them.