Why Flawed Infographics Are Superior to Perfect Ones

    by Andrew Whitacre
    August 6, 2012

    This infographic from Floor Gem blasts the Transportation Security Administration’s prodigious terribleness (prodigious in the sense that the TSA is a terribleness prodigy, on the level of Bobby Fischer and chess).

    There’s nothing that inherently lends this data to the infographic form. It’s flawed. There’s nothing that that the graphicality adds to the data. But, the infographic is just so good-looking, its imperfections don’t matter. It affects you. You remember it. And that’s really what counts when it comes to communicating data.

    I’d like you to read the whole post and infographic below and then go to the bottom, where I’ve embedded the closing credits from the Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg movie “The Other Guys.” The clip is an epic animated visualization of who benefited in the two years after the ’08 crisis. What’s striking and common in these and other visualizations is that their almost-fatal flaw — persuasion by cherry-picking information — is so plain to see that it, ironically, leads viewers to think more critically about the data-selection process, a phenomenon as valuable as the data itself.


    Example: at 1:45 in “The Other Guys” video, it tries to illustrate injustice by showing that Goldman Sachs’ tax rate dropped from 34% to 1% after its bailout. You go through a great critical thinking process that’s better than if the infographic were perfectly accurate:

    1. That’s unjust!
    2. But it’s a government bailout. Why would we tax our own money? This infographic is stupid.
    3. But not all Goldman’s post-‘08 taxable income was bailout money. Why was that allowed to be taxed at 1%?
    4. Ah-ha, a 1% tax rate is effectively a different kind of bailout.
    5. So who the hell made that decision?

    Except for the third step, everything is instantaneous logic. The infographic goes from factually misleading to leading you straight to the right question.

    So put on your critical thinking hats and have a look at both infographics …


    Andrew Whitacre is Communications Director for the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, 2007 Knight News Challenge winner. A native of the nation’s capital, Whitacre has written on communications policy issues, starting with work on satellite radio as a student at Wake Forest University.

    This post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

    Tagged: data floor gem infographics mit civic media center the other guys tsa

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