Debunking the “Republican Congress Creates Jobs” Chart Or “How To Make Numbers Say Anything You Want”

This is a companion piece to the previous post, so please read both of them. Here I’m going to lay out the script I had written for debunking the chart I created that asked the question “Does a Republican Congress Create More Jobs?” and then implied with a chart that this was indeed the case. I’ll walk through some process for creating charts and then talk about why I would create a chart that I was just going to debunk.

I apologize for the similarity to the post where I debunk the Obama stimulus chart. These two scripts were meant to be together.

<Start Script>

How to Make Number Say Anything You Want

Do you want to convince people that your side is right with only the flimsiest proof? Does the idea of tricking people with numbers make you all happy inside? Then come join us as we walk through “How To Use Charts To Say Anything”

Step 1: Massaging the Data

The first step is to grab the data that makes your point the best. Let’s use it to prove that a Democratic Congress is bad for jobs.

“How can we do such a thing” you ask?

In the first case, the raw jobs data looks like this

but the final chart looks like this.

How did they do that? Was it magic?

Nope, we simply smoothed the data. The raw data is a little too chaotic and has too many data point to tell the straightforward story that we want. So instead, we’ll average the monthly data so that we have quarterly data. There… now we have some nice smooth straightforward data

Step 2: Pick colors that make you look good

Next, we pick some colors. Let’s make the Democrats blue dark and bold, give it a bit of an angry feel to it. This is our way of getting the audience to look at the democrats in a harsh way. We could try to soften up on the Republicans more, but too soft of a red would look pink and we don’t want that.

Let’s compare our colors to the Excel defaults:

Step 3: Do NOT give any context!

Finally, and this is the most important part, only give information that is helpful.

Let everyone know that we saw 8 million jobs added to the economy while the Republicans were in charge and make a point to show that we lost 8 million jobs while the Democrats were in charge. But don’t mention that the Republicans took Congress only a year after 9/11 at a time when the job market was particularly low. Otherwise people will think it’s a “Well, they can’t fall off the floor” thing.

And make sure you don’t mention anything about the real estate market and how the bubble drove the labor market in a way that was clearly unsustainable. We don’t want the viewers to be confused with all these relevant details. We want them to say “Republicans good, Democrats bad”.

<End Script>

Everyone here was incredibly kind to put up with my bullshit chart for as long as I left it up without explanation. I’d like to say unequivocally: My chart is propaganda… just like the Obama administration’s chart. I was trying to use my chart as a visual talking point that said:

If you have no ethical qualms, data visualizations can be manipulated to say exactly what you want them to say.

My chart implies that the Republicans were responsible for the jobs growth between 2003 and 2007 and that Democrats were responsible for the drastic decline from 2007 to the present. Let me state plainly, I do not think that is the case.

But if we just play around with the data the right way, we get what seems to be a clear picture that portrays a correlation and gets on its hands and knees and begs us to draw causation from it. Most people will do exactly that.

I can spend hours walking patiently through what is wrong with the Obama administration’s chart. Let me recap the high points here:

  • If you look at the data with the context of what President Obama’s team was hoping the stimulus would do, the power of the chart disappears.
  • If you look at the data with the understanding that they’re charting a first derivative, you realize that we haven’t gained jobs, we’re just losing them more slowly and the power of the chart disappears.
  • If you look at the data with the understanding that they didn’t even start spending the stimulus until the job loss had started slowing down, the power of the chart disappears.
  • If you look at the data in the context of other recessions, you’ll realize that, far from showing a drastic improvement, the numbers represent a devastatingly slow jobs recovery compared to other recoveries and the power of the chart disappears.

But this kind of explanatory rebuttal would interest those already convinced. The chart I made had a power that an calm explanatory video wouldn’t have. Quite frankly, I hate that this is the case. Like President Obama’s chart, my chart doesn’t teach people anything about economics or lead people to learn important things about unemployment.

The only valuable thing my chart teaches is that charts can portray accurate data and still be manipulated to coach people along to poor conclusions. The only reason I even put my chart up is because it is the graphical equivalent of drawing out the Obama administration’s argument to its logical conclusion. My chart works with the same data, the same assumptions, and the same implications. And it leads to a completely different conclusion.

I’ve heard people describe President Obama’s chart as “powerful” and “brilliant”. The popular information visualization blog Flowing Data even tossed it up for public discussion among info viz professionals.

My point here is that it isn’t brilliant. It’s juvenile. It’s the chart equivalent of a crass political cartoon with a Snidely Whiplash mustache drawn on the bad guys. It’s a design trick imagined by cynical, self-congratulatory children fresh out of graduate school who pat themselves on the back for their ability to fool people who they think are too stupid to know the difference. They think they are special because they can get powerful people to flatter them for their ability to lie.

But they aren’t special. I can play that same childish game in my free time. The difference if that I want people to know that it’s a trick. They would rather see people fooled.

17 comments

  1. […] « Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-03-07 Debunking the “Republican Congress Creates Jobs” Chart Or “How To Make Numbers Say Any… […]

  2. MeeMesiko says:

    This is exactly why I can’t stand political arguments. Because every person has taken a side and can bend whatever facts they want in whatever way they feel best supports their opinions. I’m a rather middle-of-the-road political thinker, and I like to think that I can see both sides of an issue better than a hardcore Republican or Democrat. So when I start seeing charts and numbers thrown around in any political context, I instantly lose faith in the conversation or argument because I don’t know what ‘facts’ really are factual.

    Excellent article. More people should read this kind of information because it helps them see that both major political parties use and twist this information to support their political base. Politicians are scum and this two-party system we have is inadequate to properly run the country.

  3. […] Political Math Blog: Debunking the “Republican Congress Creates Jobs” Chart Or “How To Make Numbers Say… […]

  4. raedyohed says:

    Saw you on CSPAN. Love the logic in this post. Wish everyone was a stats nerd. World would be better place.

  5. M Abraham says:

    Maybe it’s just the math geek in me but I don’t see how changing the colors or resolution of the graph changed the data I am looking at. Both graphs are basically telling me the same thing. I don’t see an ethical violation here.

  6. TimmiT says:

    Good article.

    M Abraham. There is a difference in the visualization, but it is one of the subtle things that lodges in the back of your mind, not the most forward item that you see. Think of it like good guys wear white, bad guys wear black, or perhaps dress up the chart with an angel on one side and a devil on the other. Sure, you see the statistics on the chart, but the subliminal tones help you to feel a certain way about it, or the people behind the statistics.

  7. Jay says:

    Great blog! Glad I found it.

    As to manipulating data to make your side look good, well, duh. That’s why people need to edumacate themselves, rather than being sheeples, and why First Principles are important in the political realm.

    Either you believe the mission of the government is something far south of providing everything to everyone, or not. Today, the government is populated by a whole lot of the “nots.”

  8. […] Math walks us through a tale of two charts, one republican and one democrat leaning, showing us that some massaging and bright colors can make nice fodder for […]

  9. […] Graphing can be a wonderful tool in helping people to understand a point. However, there are people who become masters at making something bad look good, by changing how the graph looks. It is important to read what each axis represents, and look at how they are numbered. It is easy to be fooled. I came across a political blog that tells people how to make a graph ‘say what you want.’   Here is the link… http://www.politicalmathblog.com/?p=401 […]

  10. Thanks for sharing great article.

  11. rob says:

    well, I hoped for something enlightening, but your debunk is more bunk than debunk. step 1) going from monthly to quarterly and arriving at a curve that looks, well, EXACTLY like the “raw data” curve is not, i repeat, not massaging the data. just plain silly. step 2) yeah, sure, those colors are WAY different! but nice blather as to why the reds are all but identical: “because the GOP don’t like pink,” and of course everyone knows there’s no other way to vary red than to make it pink! and after all, RED has a really good connotation, right? ever think of going into comedy?

  12. Thanks for the great feature and we’re very excited about having you blog for us!

  13. Independent says:

    I am now slightly dumber after reading this… thanks.

  14. […] charts: Debunking the Obama Stimulus Chart or "How to Make Numbers Say Anything You Want" and Debunking the "Republican Congress Creates Jobs" Chart or "How to Make Numbers Say Anything You Want….] This graph could go in the next edition of How to Lie With […]

  15. […] Debunking the “Republican Congress Creates Jobs” Chart Or “How To Make Numbers Say Anything Yo… […]

  16. Thinks for himself says:

    Anyone who actually thinks for themselves and closely considers what they are looking at won’t really have a problem with Obama’s chart as presented. It clearly states US JOB LOSS (indicating a rate), whereas yours is US JOBS (indicating numbers of jobs). You call it ‘deception’, I call it ignorance of the viewer to not understand (or care to understand) what they’re viewing. Also, most of the time, these same people are fed such charts by people with their own agendas and ‘interpretations’, which are just taken as point of fact. That’s the fault of the American people, not those producing the chart (unless the chart is clearly false, fabricated, and lacking important detail that explains the data).

    As a career scientists in the defense industry, I’m well aware of how data can be shown in different ways for different impact. There is, however, a difference between presenting data in a certain light to make a point versus fabricating data, which I know is not what you are implying here. However, you’ve missed a crucial point in your jobs chart where you show data going back to 2002, which is absent in Obama’s chart. The years between 2000 and 2008 saw the largest ramp up of US military since (probably) the Viet Nam war. Millions of jobs were created as a result (I enjoyed one of them). Also, that period witnessed the largest economic boom (or rather, bubble) in recent history with millions more jobs created by an unsustainable economy, unbridled corporate greed, deregulation, and an all out free-for-all on Wall Street, which came to an abrupt end in 2008. How many of the jobs lost on this chart came from Wall Street and the financial industry.

    You can also update your analysis with the new data that shows the Obama chart with many consecutive months in positive territory, meaning that it is no longer showing ‘slowing of job loss’, but ‘job creation’.

    In another view, it’s not just about counting the number of jobs, but when we are hemorrhaging jobs at an increasingly higher rate up to 2008, it takes time to slow and reverse that loss. Obama’s chart shows that well, and mirrors the message being given at the time. Also, I’m quite happy that Obama didn’t just start handing out stimulus cash like Bush wanted to when leaving office without strings attached. As a result of his careful actions, most of that taxpayer money has been repaid, with interest. I, for one, am extremely happy with the results of Obama’s administration (and as an ex-Republican) that says a lot. I also study any data carefully, and as suspect until I do further investigation, especially if it looks too good to be true. It’s just too bad the Republican Party decided to sit it out for 3 years instead of participating in helping this country recover. It’s more clear every day watching the Republican Primary circus that the Party has lost all credibility with rational Americans.

  17. […] Math walks us through a tale of two charts, one republican and one democrat leaning, showing us that some massaging and bright colors can make nice fodder for […]

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