“The worst chart about Canadian drinking” actually makes some sense

I don’t hesitate to call out terrible and misleading posts on respected publications like Wonkblog, nor do I hesitate to call out terrible and misleading graphs in respected magazines like TIME or 34th street. So it’s only appropriate that in this post, I call out Wonkblog for unfairly calling out a graph that I don’t think was all that terrible or misleading.

You may have guessed from the title of this post that I’m here to defend “The worst chart about Canadian drinking” Wonkblog complained about on Friday [selection bolded for emphasis]:

Kieran Healy describes this chart from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as the “visual display of just-barely quantitative information.” It’s hard to disagree:

canada_drinking

The 0.6 year intervals on the Y axis are what really make it special.

I disagree. With all due respect, it’s always easy to disagree.

At first blush, Wonkblog is right. I would have never put together this graph, and I hope you wouldn’t have either. But on second blush, I think there’s a little more to the CBC’s creation than Wonkblog credits it for.

For one thing, the x-axis values are not arrayed randomly. There exists an actual spatial relationship between the placement of the provinces on this graph and their location in the real world. From left to right, you have the provinces listed from west to east (best to least, just like south of the border), followed by the territories… admittedly arrayed without any discernible respect to geographic sequence.

But the point is, something is being conveyed by the CBC’s decision to assemble its graph in this manner — even if it’s not being conveyed in the way Wonkblog would have done it.

Additionally, the .6 intervals might seem curious, but Canada is a relatively young country, and everybody knows those fractions can make all the difference when you don’t have a lot of years to deal with. Or perhaps the CBC wanted to evoke — appropriately, given the subject of the visual representation — the fractions involved in measuring blood alcohol levels. By measuring in intervals of .6 — intervals typically more than high enough to kill you — the CBC might be touting Canada’s abnormally high tolerance for alcohol and challenging the US to a drinking game. Challenge accepted.

Admittedly, this post might come off all apologetic, like I’m excusing some seriously poor graphic design on the part of the CBC. But it’s not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows: I’m willing to call out mistakes when I see ’em. For instance, it did not escape my attention that the graph mispelled the word “center”.

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