The Graphic is Mightier than the Pen?

John Pavlus over at has a fascinating article on the subject of whether ‘Infographics Can Save Morons From Themselves’. The essence of the piece is a discussion based on academic research from Darthmoth college which suggests (from the research abstract):

Graphical corrections are found to successfully reduce incorrect beliefs among potentially resistant subjects and to perform better than an equivalent textual correction

Political researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler designed some experiments to test – as Pavlus puts it – ‘the efficacy of graphical “correctives” to inaccurate beliefs’

He goes on to say:

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…

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.

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It’s true that infographics have the potential to be more dangerous than simple text (see Megan McArdle’s recent article on Ending the Infographic plague), but the researchers are circumspect and not unequivocal in their conclusions. (How could they when you have examples of Fox News playing loose with their graphics, while stating the correct data). Instead, they say their results:

highlight the exciting possibility that graphical corrections can reduce misperceptions more effectively than text. However, the results underscore the psychological factors that make misperceptions so difficult to reduce…

And in conclusion (my emphasis):

Our results suggest that journalists writing stories about changes or trends in a measurable quantity where misperceptions are likely should consider including graphs in their stories.

So my conclusion from the research and subsequent discussion – us graphics to highlight trends or changes and you might, just might make things clearer and change opinions.

For more on where graphics can help and details of the experiments, check the research paper:
Opening the Political Mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions.

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