Catch of the Day: Data-Challenged

Making sure the charts match the numbers.
The South isn't as solidly Republican as some would have you believe. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Catch goes to Larry Bartels for his fair critique of a Nate Cohn article at The Upshot that overemphasized the extent to which whites in the South have become solid Republicans.

The use of counties as units of anything is often a bad idea, and using a map without rescaling it to the population of those counties isn't going to cut it in the modern age of graphs and charts journalism. The same goes for states. The new sites should be getting their audiences accustomed to "funny looking" maps such as these by state and county for the 2012 elections. (For states, the Times has used a nice one weighted by Electoral College votes.)

Cohn generally does excellent work, and I've been raving about The Upshot. But the new sites need to be especially careful about this sort of thing. People tend to believe what they (think they) see, and they tend to believe that numbers are real. Maps and graphs zip through the intertubes faster than text, perhaps even faster than video, allowing people access to important information. That also means people can "learn" stuff that turns out to be wrong. Especially since fewer of us are trained to read numbers critically than are trained to read text critically

Not all statistics are lies, of course, and using quantitative data is absolutely essential, especially for understanding an electorate in a nation of more than 300 million people.

At any rate: Nice Catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.