Researchers Say Infographics Can Save Morons From Themselves. Really?

A research paper from Dartmouth College suggests so. But the persuasive power of graphic design cuts both ways.

Researchers Say Infographics Can Save Morons From Themselves. Really?

It’s a sad fact of our cultural moment that anyone can marshall their own “facts” to support just about any argument or political position imaginable. (Thanks, Internet.) What’s worse, psychology studies have shown that rebutting factually impoverished arguments with actual facts has precisely the opposite effect one would hope: it actually makes people cling even tighter to their fictions. Is there anything that can cut through this Gordian knot of nonsense? According to researchers at Dartmouth College and Georgia State University, infographics might do the trick.

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler designed some experiments to test the efficacy of graphical “correctives” to inaccurate beliefs. I’m not qualified to make judgments on the soundness of their experimental procedures, and the fact that they are political scientists (as opposed to actual-science scientists) makes me inclined to take the whole thing with a grain of salt, but their results are certainly intriguing. The bottom line: in their tests, rebutting misinformation with graphics was shown to be more effective than conveying the same information in written form.

[From Fathom, a visualization of the world’s population density]

Why might this be? The authors suggest that conveying “counter-attitudinal information” (i.e., facts that directly contradict one’s beliefs on a subject like climate change, which the authors directly examined) graphically instead of textually simply provides less opportunity for counter-argument. A line graph of average global temperatures rising over the past 30 years is pretty damn unambiguous; there’s no real way to “spin” it to yourself, even if you want to. The authors recommend, in their conclusion, “that journalists writing stories about changes or trends in a measurable quantity where misperceptions are likely should consider including graphs in their stories.”

But there’s a big hole in this whole conceit. Just because people might be more psychologically inclined to accept infographics as “more objective” doesn’t mean that they actually are more objective. Graphic design is a language just like text, and it provides just as ample opportunity for obfuscation and distortion. The rub is that because graphics are so effective as communication tools, misleading graphics have the potential to be that much more dangerous as misinformation weapons.

Here’s a simple example. Imagine two numbers, 2 and 10. On a number line, the difference between them is eight “marks” on the line. But let’s say you choose to use circles to visualize the numbers. If you design a circle whose diameter is 2, and another whose diameter is 10, the circles’ relative size difference will be much greater than those eight “marks” on the number line. In fact, if you visualize the quantities this way, the circle representing “10” will be about 25 times larger than the circle representing “2.” That’s a lot more than eight measly hash marks. It makes a hell of a visual statement about the difference between those two figures. And it’s completely misleading.

But you don’t even have to get all mathy and technical to pull a fast one with shoddy infographics. As the cheeky Businessweek article below illustrates, simply placing two completely unrelated line graphs next to each other can encourage our monkey brains to make all kinds of nonsensical connections. (Would M. Night Shyamalan start making good movies again if people bought more newspapers? The answer may surprise you!)

Regardless of whether Nyhan and Reifler’s results are sound, their hypothesis underscores the fact that visual communication is a powerful tool that can be used for good or ill. If anything, after reading their paper, I’m inclined to be even more skeptical of any infographics I see, if only because I know how good they can be at lulling my mind into acceptance. Seeing is believing, after all.

[Read Nyhan and Reifler’s paper; top image: A travel planner showing times rather than distances]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.