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The seven deadly sins of statistical misinterpretation, and how to avoid them

# Deceptive graphs

A graph maker may choose a small range of a larger graph to highlight a little difference or association and make it look more significant.

Take care to note the graph's labels along the axes. Question unlabelled graphs.

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## The seven deadly sins of statistical misinterpretation, and how to avoid them

theconversation.com

7

Key Ideas

### Assuming small differences are meaningful

Small, daily fluctuations are often just statistical noise. For instance, in the stock market or polls.

To avoid drawing faulty conclusions about the causes, request the "margin of error" relating to the numbers. If the difference is smaller than the margin of error, there is probably no real difference.

### Assuming statistical = real-world significance

Generalizations about how two groups differ in some way often draw on stereotypes while ignoring the similarities.

Asking for the "effect size" can prevent this error. It is a measure of how much the average of one group differs from the average of another.

### Not looking at extremes

A focus on a "normal distribution," - also known as a "bell curve," is where most people are near the average score, and only a small group is far above or below average. However, when you're dealing with extremes, small group differences can matter a lot.

Although a small change in performance makes no difference to the whole, the fluctuations change the character of the extremes.

### Trusting coincidence

Just because two things change at the same time, or in similar ways, does not mean they are related.

Question the observed association. Are there many occurrences, or is this merely chance? Can you predict future associations?

### Getting causation backward

When two things are related, one might be tempted to see a causal path. For instance, that mental health problems lead to unemployment. It is possible that it is reversed, such as unemployment, causing mental health issues.

When you think about the association, ask if the reverse is possible, or even if it could go both ways, creating a feedback loop.

### Forgetting to consider outside causes

We sometimes forget to consider "third factors," or outside causes, that could be the link between two things, because both are actually effects of the third factor.

Avoid this error by always considering more factors when you see a correlation.

### Deceptive graphs

A graph maker may choose a small range of a larger graph to highlight a little difference or association and make it look more significant.

Take care to note the graph's labels along the axes. Question unlabelled graphs.

SIMILAR ARTICLES & IDEAS:

##### Information that matches our beliefs

We surround ourselves with it: We tend to like people who think like us; if we agree with someone's beliefs, we're more likely to be friends with them.

This makes sense, but it means ...

##### The "swimmer's body illusion"

It's a thinking mistake and it occurs when we confuse selection factors with results.

Professional swimmers don't have perfect bodies because they train extensively. Rather, they are good swimmers because of their physiques.

##### The sunk cost fallacy

It plays on this tendency of ours to emphasize loss over gain.

The term sunk cost refers to any cost that has been paid already and cannot be recovered. The reason we can't ignore the cost, even though it's already been paid, is that we're wired to feel loss far more strongly than gain.

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##### Metabolism

It refers to the thousands of chemical reactions that turn what we eat and drink into fuel in every cell of the body. These reactions change in response to our environments and behaviors, an...

##### How The Body Uses Calories
• Basal metabolism is the energy our body needs to keep our cells working and accounts for 65-80% of most adults' caloric consumption.
• The thermic effect of food is the energy our body uses to process food and accounts for 10% of most adults' caloric consumption.
• Physical activity accounts for 10 - 30 % of most people’s caloric consumption .

Not everyone overeats and becomes overweight, and not everyone who becomes overweight or obese develops illnesses like diabetes or heart disease.

There was never a special diet, exercise regimen, or supplement that worked universally to control weight. Through trial and error, we have to discover habits and routines we can stick with that help us eat less and move more.

2 more ideas

##### Straw man arguments

A straw man argument is a misrepresentation of an opinion or viewpoint, designed to be as easy as possible to contradict.

The only purpose is for it to be easy to expose. I...

##### Hollow man arguments

This is a weak case (similar to the Straw man arguments) attributed to a non-existent group: Someone will fabricate a viewpoint that is easy to contradict, then claim it was made by a group they disagree with. Arguing against an opponent which doesn’t exist is a pretty easy way to win any debate.

People who use hollow man arguments will often use vague, non-specific language without explicitly giving any sources or stating who their opponent is.

##### Iron man argument

It is designed to be resistant to attacks by a defier.There arguments are difficult to avoid because they have a lot of overlap with legitimate debate techniques.

A person using an iron man argument will most likely make their own viewpoint so vague that nothing anyone says about it can weaken it. They’ll use jargon and imprecise terms. This means they can claim anyone who disagrees didn’t understand them, or they’ll rephrase their argument multiple times.

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##### The origins of the breakfast myth

Much of the research suggesting that breakfast is essential for health is funded by cereal makers.

Companies like Kellogg, Quaker Oats and others whose businesses depend on p...

##### Breakfast and weight loss/gain

There’s no clear evidence that breakfast consumption promotes weight loss or that skipping breakfast leads to weight gain.

It might actually be a bad strategy for weight loss because eating breakfasts means taking in a higher number of calories/day.

##### The health halo of breakfast

...is not backed up by research.

It is possible for breakfast to have health benefits, especially for some groups (growing children and athletes), but there’s not a lot of good evidence behind those benefits.

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##### The Caffeinated and the Un-caffeinated

Morning commuters seem to fall into one of two categories:

• the Caffeinated: ready to take on the day—they're reading their morning papers, or checking email, or reading for plea...
##### Grown Ups and Coffee

By 1988 only 50 percent of the adult American population drank coffee. In 1962, average coffee consumption was 3.12 cups per day; by 1991 had dropped to 1.75 cups per day.

At the onset of the 1980s, coffee growers and retailers realized that the current 20-29-year-old generation had little interest in coffee, which they associated with their parents and grandparents.

##### Coffee And the "Me" Generation

For the coffee industry to survive, it needed a new marketing strategy. The consumer was changing and coffee-players needed to pay attention.

Crucial questions the 'me' generation will ask: "What's in it for me? Is the product 'me'? Is it consistent with my lifestyle? Do I like how it tastes? What will it cost me? Is it convenient to prepare?"

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##### Testing for workplace personality

Workplace personality tests are used to sort people according to various thinking styles, such as into/extroversion and thinking/feeling.

Many psychologists feel that the theory behind the d...

##### Traits and workplace success

Recently, six traits were identified that are consistently linked to workplace success: Conscientiousness, adjustment, ambiguity acceptance, curiosity, courage, and competitiveness.

Each trait may have drawbacks at extremes. The relative importance of each trait will be determined by the job you are doing. Knowing the traits can also aid in personal development so that you can identify your own strengths and weaknesses and the ways you may account for them.

##### Conscientiousness

Conscientious people are committed to plans and ensure they carry them out accurately. They consider the wisdom of their decisions for the long-term.

They are essential for strategic planning but can be too rigid.

5 more ideas

##### The Art of Telling Stories

Today, brand perceptions and relationships are increasingly difficult to maintain, due to constraints of limited budgets, a whole lot of options, and audiences who are distracted, disinterested and...

##### Facts Mean Nothing

The assumption that the audience will logically look at the facts and figures and make the right choice is fundamentally flawed. Audiences ignore most factual data, which even if repeated often, is forgotten or distorted.

##### An Impactful Story

Even when brands know the value of communicating through stories, it is hard to create truly powerful narratives.

An impactful story usually involves empathetic and authentic people overcoming challenges, which can inspire, entertain and inform audiences.

2 more ideas

##### Yerkes-Dodson law

The Yerkes-Dodson law states that the more mental arousal there is in doing a task, the more efficient a person becomes. After you get to a certain threshold, your performance begins to decrease.

An appropriate quantity of stress should inspire increased productivity.

Difficult tasks require low levels of stress, while easy tasks require high levels of stress to trigger mental arousal.

3 more ideas

##### Homo Narrativus

We, humans, seek stories.

We are essentially ‘story finders’ looking for meaning, narrative and shape in everything around us. We tend to not believe in improbable...

##### Bias Towards The Individual

Stories built around individuals provide relatability and a sense of being in the shoes of the people involved, living in the narrative.

Our tendency to give a ‘face’ and a story to a group or collection of people made us invent a dominant leader of the group, like the President, or the Team Captain, or the Monarch.

##### How Fame Alters Our Perceptions
• The popularity or fame of an individual or a piece of art (like a painting, song or a movie) alters how we perceive it.
• The characteristics and behaviour of the people among whom fame spreads matters more than the actual merit or quality.
• A study showed that more people liked the songs that were topping the charts, copying the behaviour of other listeners, and if the same songs were arranged randomly, they were not chosen or liked that much.

one more idea

##### Quality and price

A higher price doesn’t really mean higher quality.

The higher price does not just reflect the added cost of organic agriculture techniques. Also, people will pay more for the label, of...

##### Organic food and the environment
Organic products are not necessarily better for the environment.

Many organic farmers, especially the large ones, don’t skip pesticides and fertilizers, they just use natural options, which are hardly risk-free.

##### Organic vs. conventional foods

Any additional nutritional benefits from organic foods, compared with conventional, are very small.

Ultimately, if you want more nutrients, eat more vegetables, organic or not.