January 6, 2012

Beware Infographics

Like most Americans, I believe anything that I read on the internet. If it weren't true, it wouldn't be there. Therefore, it must be true. As such, I was slightly confused when I read that infographics might not always be accurate. An infographic is a super cool thing like this:


When I first read this infographic, I almost made motorists smell my farts. I mean, biking does so much good that it will save Portland $400 million in health care costs. As I was preparing to waft my flatus (not to be confused with Flattus Maximus) at others, I read this from Megan Mcardle of the Atlantic:
"However, if you look at the source paper for those amazing biking stats, you'll see that the data is handled a little ... weirdly.  They have one source for the biking stats, another source (which I can't find) for the obesity stats, even though the paper contains data for both--and, natch, whatever data source they used puts the US obesity rate much higher than the paper (and than the OECD figures which are the standard comparison).  They only show you data for Germany and Holland--with good reason.  Australia, which has similar cycling rates to Germany, has a much higher obesity rate, as does the fairly bike-friendly UK.

As for air quality, it's not even possible to say what percentage of air pollution comes from automobiles in the US--it depends on the location, and the pollutant.  But it isn't even close to true to say that 50-90% of all air pollution comes from automobiles; the EPA says that "up to half" of all air pollution is emitted by motor vehicles, but that category includes things like construction equipment, and I don't think anyone has yet come up with a way to substitute a bicycle for a crane.  Moreover, on important particulate measures the US actually has better air quality than most of Europe--thanks to our lower density and, in some cases, to tighter and more effective regulation."
At first I was in complete denial. Ms. Mcardle is a libertarian sour pus and her only apparent joy in life is cooking and a $1500 food processor/blender/scale/heater; what would she know of stats? But that's when I read that one of the sources had the domain of arxiv.org. I don't care if it's affiliated with the Cornell University Library (it is), that's just a weird domain name. Not to mention links to www.portlandmercury.com and treehugger.com. It is widely known that Portlanders and Treehuggers are smug and we all know that "smug" is a euphemism for being untrustworthy. Trust me, I read it on the Internet somewhere.

Next up: A look at Cincinnati transit

Cool link of the day:
Playfair-piechart.jpg (400×462)
Infographics in early 19th century. What's a Turkifh Empire? (Public domain source)

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