ERR's AK supports quantitative illiteracy August 25, 2017

ERR's AK supports quantitative illiteracy through line charts

Almost everyone above the second grade will know that 9 x 2 is not 38 (but, rather, 18), that after number 11 comes number 12, and some other practical quantitative relations. If they have watched the main Estonian evening TV news programme, "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK), of the Estonian Public Broadcasting Corporation (ERR) some days ago, they may have seen this, which might have brought their knowledge into question:

"Reisid Egiptusesse", ERR's AK on August 23, 2017, at about 21:15.

As the graphical information is generally interpreted, this line chart says that 9 x 2 is 38, 9 x 3 is 61, and so on. In other words, it may confuse the viewers, especially those whose knowledge is not strong yet.

That was not the only misleading line chart of that evening. Here are two more:

"Reisid Türki", ERR's AK on August 23, 2017, at about 21:15.

Above, it appears that 8 is approximately 4 times bigger than 4. (I.e., 39 000 seems to be only a forth of 87 000.)

"Reisid Ukrainasse", ERR's AK on August 23, 2017, at about 21:15.

Next, I am presenting how these data might have been graphically shown, arguably in a better way.


The main thing is that I have not used the line chart, as it may imply that data exist even when information is actually missing. Secondly, I have used both axes properly, which led to the changes in the numbers of tourists being more realistic.

The main conclusion that the news anchor has made - that Estonians, when picking international destinations for holidays and business trips, are sensitive to the political circumstances in the destination country - still remains even in this bar chart. However, a more correct depiction of the data makes the interpretation richer as well as more correct.

First, it presents the data more truthfully. We see that a lot of information is missing. Only 2008 and 2016 have full data sets, while most of the intermediary years have either none or a single data point. (So, it is not that 16 comes after 11, if someone was wondering.)

Parenthetically, why are only some years' data presented? What has happened with the rest of the data? Have they not been collected, or has someone purposely chosen only these years and leaving out others? If so, why? With missing data suitably brushed away in a line chart of the AK type, fewer viewers will be prone to asking such questions.

Secondly, it is not clear what happens in those years where data are missing. For instance, have the journeys to Ukraine been steadily going down between 2008 and 2013, or have they varied both upwards and downwards? Generally, a line chart can be misleading to use if it - like here - contains missing data.

Finally, not all of the changes are as dramatic as AK has presented it. For instance, using graphic language AK showed that journeys to Turkey in 2016 are only a third of what they had been in 2008 (see the image "Reisid Türki" above), while in fact they have not even halved since 2008 (39/73 = 0.53). Also, there is little change in travel to Ukraine in 2013 in relation to 2016 (29 and 33 thousand, respectively), but AK's chart shows graphically an increase of 50%.

Do I believe that ERR has done this with some specific goal? No! But, if such patently wrong way of presenting quantitative information gains some foothold, there might be other media that opt to do such manipulation intentionally: manipulation of truth is clearly present in political debates in some other countries. But, Estonia ought not to go in that direction, and public media - financed by taxpayers' money - ought to support a deeper understanding of quantitative information, rather than obscuring it through very misleading charts.

Now, a reader may say that this must have been a one-time incident. However, every evening, temperature charts like the one below are presented in AK. They generally tend to show different temperature variations as same (here, a change of 2 degrees (17 - 15) is the same as a change of 1 degree (18 - 17), which is the same as that of 4 degrees (13 - 9), etc), again contributing to confusion in interpreting quantitative information. So, rather than continuing to confuse Estonian public, ERR should aim to improve its own quantitative literacy and thereby hopefully positively influence the general public as well.

Weather forecast, ERR's AK on August 19, 2017, at about 21:20.
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