9.19.2010

Visual Rhetoric: A Dumbinstration

I really believe that most people were bad enough at understanding graphs in math class that they are easily manipulated by "charts." That's why AlGore's An Incovenient Truth was persuasive: it showed graphs featuring temperatures over the last 100 years, followed by graphs showing temperatures over the last 600,000 years, and pretty much any graph within that time span that made things look dire. Of course, showing a graph of temperatures over the past 250 years would make it look flat. So he didn't show that one. Wrangler just shared a link to the same kind of pseudo-persuasive bullshit (but again, that's just me; I was really good at math). Here's two graphs I just made, hurriedly, because I need to be grading papers and not teaching the truth right now:
These two graphs show the same data: about a .7-degree rise from 1.3-2.0 in the time from the start of the industrial revolution through now. I just made these numbers up as examples, but you can manipulate a graph like this with whatever numbers you select. Somewhere there's probably a tool specifically made for zooming in and zooming out and getting the graph to look like a hockey stick or a baseball bat, depending on which "look" benefits your fake cause more.

But anyway, don't litter, okay? And check your mufflers.

10 comments:

Casey said...

btw, Wrangler: I'm just mostly fuckin' with you. I don't think you're dumb; I value your input and friendship, and really shouldn't'a phrased it like that.

But I do think graphs are manipulation-tools most of the time when they show up in today's politicized "science" conversations.

pure_sophist_monster said...

How is what you just did not what you just critiqued?

Also, I was chatting to a stats professor a few months back and we discovered that we were kindred spirits (as rhetor and statistician). Any visualization of data is manipulation. To reflect data, one must select data. This is, AGAIN, not to say that all reflections are equally good/useful/ethical, but that there is no chart that doesn't do this. And that "Truth" can't be the criteria. As you acknowledge, Gore's data aren't made up. So, Casey, just say you disagree with his selections rather than damning whole sale the work of selection. Unless you include EVERYTHING EVER IN EVERY CHART you are producing, as you say, bullshit.

Casey said...

No, that was the point: what I just did was what I am critiquing. It took me five minutes while I was eating pop-tarts and drinking Diet Dew. That's the point.

What I'm suggesting is that I can produce as many charts that make the "manmade" part of global warming--and even global warming itself--look deeply suspicious or nonexistent.

But I don't do that, because I'm not certain about whether there is manmade global warming or manmade global cooling or nothing manmade or whatever. And my skepticism stems from my understanding of graph-manipulation.

So most of us have seen at least two well-recognized graphs: one showing a hockey-stick increase in temperatures since 1800ish... another, less-well known perhaps, showing that increases in temperature have preceded increases in CO2 levels, not the other way around: so if anything, warming is the catalyst and increased CO2 the result.

But what do I do with those two charts in my brain? Do I run to one side or another, and create plans for saving the world based on one chart or another, ignoring the other chart? No. I sit here like a skeptical lump.

So: new distinction: a Noble Sophist is a sophist who could make a living manipulating data and playing to political funding but doesn't because he genuinely knows that he doesn't know, and doesn't want to cause worse results by his half-knowing action-plans, whereas an Ignoble Sophist is one who knows that he doesn't know, but decides to take paychecks for manipulating data and playing to public fear and making stupid graphs that anyone with a (good) 8th grade education can unravel and make meaningless.

This is Humean skepticism, right? Which effectively does include EVERYTHING FROM EVERY CHART EVER within its scope?

But again: please don't litter. I find it visually unappealing.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Casey--your second graph insinuates that temperatures could increase by a 100 degrees, or even 20 degrees. Aren't you visualizing something that has serious impact in terms of a single degree? Or is that just pseudo-liberal-academic bullshit too?

P.S--everything is in part man-made. It's the ambiguity of the "in part" that makes this (argument, life, etc) difficult.

Casey said...

Well I give up arguing on the graphs. But I will say that you're right: it is about the ambiguity of the man-made-ness... and also, I feel compelled to add, about the ambiguity of whether a rise in temperature would be an overall gain for humanity.

Certainly fake scientists have us convinced that it'll be all hell if the world warms up, but a real scientist would note that an increase of five degrees might be bad for Alexandria Egypt, but really good for all of Iceland and Russia. This is a conversation that remains to be had: what would honestly be better, and what would honestly be worse, about a warmer climate?

But, anyway--I fold.

pure_sophist_monster said...

My critique has nothing to do with the graphs specifically. I'll let Wrangler field that.

I'll deal with your response as a case in point of what I am after. I could certainly by your distinction between a Noble and Ignoble Sophist. All I'm saying is that that distinction isn't asophist or arhetorical. It's an argument taking the form of a categorization.

Casey said...

No it's not--it's just true.

pure_sophist_monster said...

HA!

Casey said...

You remain acceptable to me because of that "HA!," PSM. Ever and always.

Wishydig said...

"Aren't you visualizing something that has serious impact in terms of a single degree?"

but that's overlooking a main argument against man-made-global-warming: that slight rises in avg temp will be countered by compensation in the natural system enough so that the impact wouldn't be serious.

if the argument is about how much nature has to, and how quickly (or how much gov't has to do, and how drastically), the two graphs argue for different compensatory reactions. it's not just "it'll be bad, but how bad."