How to Lie with Statistics: Ice Bucket Challenge Edition

Look at this graph from a revisionist Vox piece on ALS donations:

If you’re teaching or taking elementary statistics, at any level, in any school, you can use this graph to demonstrate the “gee-whiz” deception technique which Darrel Huff described back in 1954 in How to Lie with Statistics.  Notice that the area of these circles bear no relationship to the numbers.

That’s because the proportions seem to be determined by the diameters of the circles.  Compare the orange circle to the pink one in the left column.  The pink circle represents a figure about two times the orange circle, but the area (and the visual cue) suggests it’s only 1/4 as large.  In other words:  1/3 becomes 1/9, 1/4 becomes 1/16, and so on.

It’s the oldest “How to Lie with Statistics” trick in the book: deceptive scaling.  It’s right there on page 66 of the Darrell Huff 1954 classic.

Reasonable people can disagree about which diseases should be prioritized for donations.  For my part, I disagree strongly with this article’s direction.  I have a relative who has been diagnosed with ALS, so my own disagreement is energized, but I still think that “death count”, or even “quality adjusted life”, are terrible proxies for “potential impact.”

Whatever you think of the article’s claims, this graph sensationalizes them.  I don’t know if the author and Vox are intentionally trying deceive readers, but deception is the result.

Update 8/28 10:19:  The article was posted on 8/20 and other observers have made the same complaint about the graphic (e.g.,

The author pasted the graphic from the CDC, I’m guessing.  No excuse.