Lies, damn lies, and data visualization

A redundant trifecta? First of all, happy holidays, if you'd like, aka one of the few times of year I feel guilt-free about saying that I'm taking (shock and horror) two full days off! And for whomever of you is out there thinking "wait, but you're blogging...probably about economics"...hush. This blog isn't work (and as pretty much any academic economist will tell you, unless you're Chris Blattman, blogging won't help your career either)...[Lie or damn lie? You decide. I think we can clearly rule out data visualization on this one.]

I went to Edward Tufte's "Presenting Data and Information" one-day course in the city last week. If you're not already familiar with Tufte, you should be! He's one of the best writers out there on how to present data in an honest and compelling way, which is often under-appreciated by academic economists, I think.

The course was largely focused toward a corporate audience, but several of the general principles hold true in academia-land as well:

  • "Know your content" rather than "know your audience". In general, a guiding Tufte principle is that good content speaks for itself. Work to declutter your graphics/presentation so that your data/results are what pop out.
  • Be intellectually honest. I thought this goes without saying, but we've had a few recent egregious examples (see below) of badly misleading figures. Don't be a damn liar (and think about what you're presenting and how. Rules of thumb aren't always good).
  • Don't be afraid to integrate data with words. Good figure labels are essential, and annotative text can often help.
  • Social science is harder than real science [and also potentially has more transparency problems.]


Yikes, part 2.

Yikes, part 2.

Maybe none of these points seem super deep to you, but I think they're worth engaging with.

Tufte also spent a long time talking about presenting information in a way that allows the audience to take in your content in a (semi-)unguided manner before beginning to talk. The idea is to present a meeting audience with a handout when you walk in, and letting them read before you start clicking through slides. This helps get everyone on the same page, and also presents them with an opportunity to engage with material at their pace rather than making lots of people wait. Presenting information this way also allows people to dive deeper if they want - and a carefully crafted handout can do a lot in a page. Then when you actually start talking, you can have a more substantive, less hand-holdy discussion. Definitely interesting. Probably not going to be implemented in job talks any time soon, but the point about a carefully-crafted fluff-less written document is appealing in a field where papers are often 35+ pages (scientists manage to publish major work in 2 or 3, so...)

Other (random) things of note:

  • A paper I've been part of (with Catherine, Dave Rapson, Mar Reguant, and Chris Knittel) is being presented at the AEA meetings in January, in the "Evaluating Energy Efficiency Programs" session at (gulp) 8 AM on Jan. 3. Still very preliminary, but I think we're doing some cool things in incorporating machine learning with traditional econometric methods to exploit high-frequency electricity data. If you can suffer the early morning, come check it out!
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens is awesome. Go see it if you haven't already! And if you have, shut up about the "they remade Episode IV" stuff. Similar plots? Sure. Was it still super awesome? 100%.
  • I basically missed out on all of the COP coverage, but hopefully this agreement represents some steps in the right direction.
  • My new Anova sous vide cooking toy has been a smashing success so far (neither Dana nor I has been harmed yet). 
  • Grist has some compelling maps.
  • The Economist has an infographic advent calendar. 
  • And, finally, on an optimistic note, Quartz's Chart of the Year shows the dramatic decline in people living in poverty over the last 200 years or so. We're doing a lot of things wrong these days, but it's nice to see clear graphical evidence that we're actually doing some stuff right.

That's it - stop reading this and go do something fun/outside/etc!