President Obama, I Fixed Your Graph For You

I’ve been pretty quiet recently because 1) I’m on vacation and 2) I’m trying to wrap my head around the health care issue before I talk about it at length.

But today I saw something on healthreform.gov that bothered me:
Combined PPO

Here’s the thing, Mr. President. There is such a thing as visual lying. That is when you show a graph and you show the numbers but the two things are not in any way related to one another.

That is the problem here. If someone looks at this graph, they see that the sky is falling because the bars have increased so dramatically. On the left, your team has represented a 30% increase with a graphic that shows a 966% increase. On the right, your team has represented a 63% increase with a graphic that shows a 308% increase.

And are the two sets bars related in any way? You might think so, given that they show up next to each other and are supposed to measure the same thing. But from a data perspective, they are not even remotely close to being right.

It is possible to use graphs and numbers in such a way that is honest. That’s an important part of transparency. So, I fixed your graph for you.

You’re welcome.

UPDATE: In the comments section, James quickly identified the problem… the graph starts the y-axis at 1000 instead of 0. I double checked and it looks like he is spot on. Thanks!

With that in mind, the graph is more of a rookie mistake than a conscious attempt to deceive. I’ve edited my post to reflect that (I left my original comments in so everyone can see what a smart-ass I tend to be).

15 comments

  1. Joshua says:

    LOL, Nice catch!

  2. James says:

    An interesting point with regards to health care costs are the transfer of costs to private insurances. I am sure you will be able to find the specific data on this matter, but here is what is happening. Medicare & Medicaid (government insurance) is only paying about 80% to 90% of the billable payments. The hospitals and doctors are forced to transferring these costs by raising their prices of treatments.

    I would say this is the same principle of stores that suffer from high theft rates (shop lifting). They are forced to raise prices to cover their losses. We pay higher prices at stores due to theft and we pay higher prices in insurance due to non-payment.

    It would be nice to seem some discussion on how much of the increases in the costs of medical care are directly related to the “under cutting” of payments by the government programs.

  3. BCC says:

    Ah yes, the old floating y-axis trick. And this one was shown without a labeled y-axis, which at least gives one a fighting chance. However, the size of the increase (30%, 64%) is quite clearly labeled on the graph, so the chart bars themselves end up being closer to useless than deceiving.

    At least the other graph on the page is shown correctly.

    Also, I’m pretty sure the President didn’t order the sliding y-axis, so the old “Here’s the thing, Mr. President” comes across (to me, at least) as a little smart-ass.

    But we do deserve clarity in such graphs.

    • politicalmath says:

      BCC: Good catch on the y-axis issue. James (see comment below) suggested that the y axis is floating at 1000.

      I’ve updated the post in order to disown the “smart-ass” comment (again, good catch).

  4. james says:

    i think the problem lyes in that the person making the graph attempted to use excel and didnt realize that when you make a graph it doesnt always start at 0.

    just eye balling it, i think the bottom of the one presented would be at $1000, normally what should be 0$, so when they cut it up to put in a picture they erased the 1000 without know how to use a computer.

    its really a problem of literacy than honesty

    • politicalmath says:

      I do believe that you are correct… the numbers work out just about perfectly. I graphed the stuff with the Excel defaults and it gave me the right graph (starting at 0), but maybe they are using a difference version.

  5. toes192 says:

    Missed you… Now get back to doing more good posts!!

  6. qrsdsa says:

    Awesome post, again.

    BTW, will you be doing anything on the wonderful bill known as Cap-and-trade….or cap-and-tax?

  7. [...] math blog again 2 07 2009 Just wanted to point out this guy’s work again. He caught a misrepresentation in the President’s data concerning health care costs, and then [...]

  8. Reggie D. says:

    Rookie mistake? I don’t think so, even though it starts at 1000 it still gives the appearance the author desired. He was just more sly.

  9. Anne E says:

    Does the site indicate (or do you know) how the total out-of-pocket expenses compare? Our family, like many in small businesses, switched to high-deductible PPO coverage which resulted in lower premiums and lower out-of-pocket expenses for the year. In other words, deductibles are only part of the picture.

  10. snl says:

    You buffoons! Of course this graph was calculated to deceive. I’m surprised they didn’t set the y-axis at 1,034.

  11. Phil Graves says:

    HEY! It’s still wrong on the WH/HC.gov website.

    Be curious: Did you contact them with the error? If so, who? And what was the response?

    Failure to correct, after being apprised, would seem to indicate intention. I would like to document your efforts? Thanks!

  12. I disagree... says:

    I disagree… with the disagreer.

    The old sliding Y axis trick is a mainstay of people who lie with stats.

    I used to teach a 2 day excel class (back before anyone even understood what it was) and the first half of the second day I lied to the participants with charts and graphs. YOU WOULD BE STUNNED how often people do this to manipulate political opinion.

    Besides… why attribute to stupidity that which can be adequately explained by malice?

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