Everyday Lies


By means of proper framing, graphs can lie like a parliamentary candidate

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It was Malcolm Muggeridge, I think, who first pointed out our tendency to speak of currencies as if they were conscious, sentient beings with desires, regrets, ambitions and so forth. He mocked the tendency, saying things like, “The pound sat up today and took a little nourishment.”

Since his time, the tendency has become only more marked. I dare say that human language cannot be expunged of metaphor altogether, but surely there must be some limit, especially when the metaphors are mixed. Thus, I read this morning that the pound is running too hot in the wake of its eye-watering gains; that it had had a steamrolling rally (a bit like the Russian army was supposed to have had in the first world war, not necessarily a good omen for the currency); that it had skyrocketed in a flash move.

Whose eyes watered at the gains made by the pound? It seems that there is a platonic form of eyewatering that requires no eyes actually to water. Perhaps eyes water in justified disbelief when they see a fantastically steep rise in the pound’s value on the ordinate of a graph with a carefully-selected scale in both the x and y values. By choosing the starting point carefully, moreover, you can make a graph tell you almost anything. 

I first learnt the art of graphical manipulation when the representatives of drug companies showed me charts of the supposed efficacy of whatever it was that they were encouraging me to prescribe. Scales of effect and the time over which a drug allegedly worked were carefully selected for the best possible visual effect. Otherwise undetectable differences were made to seem enormous. Financial advisers use the same technique, to make it look as if they have gained more, or lost less, on your behalf than you had hoped or feared. 

Graphs are like cameras: by means of proper framing, they can lie like a parliamentary candidate.

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