Stephen Jenkins wrote:
I was thinking that you and your blog readers might be interested in “An Economist’s Guide to Visualizing Data” by Jonathan Schwabish, in the most recent Journal of Economic Perspectives (which is the American Economic Association’s main “outreach” journal in some ways).
Ooh, I hate this so much! This seems to represent a horrible example of economists not recognizing that outsiders can help them. We do much much better in political science.
To which Jenkins wrote:
Ha! I guessed as much — hence sent it. And I’ll now admit I was surprised that JEP took the piece without getting Schwabisch to widen his reference points.
To elaborate a bit: I agree with Schwabish’s general advice (“show the data,” “reduce the clutter,” and “integrate the text and the graph”). But then he illustrates with 8 before-and-after stories in which he shows an existing graph and then gives his improvements. My problem is that I don’t like most of his “after” pictures!
In just about every case, Swabish’s advice is reasonable and his graphs improve on the originals. But I just don’t think his versions represent best practice. And, in an influential journal, you’d like to demonstrate best practice.
Here’s an example. Before:
The small scale and blurriness are my fault; something happened in my cut-and-paste, so please don’t blame Schwabish for that.
In any case, yes, the second display is better, but in addition I’d label the y-axes and, most obviously, I’d get rid of those heavy gray horizontal lines. I’d also put tick marks on the x-axes, especially for the two graphs in the upper row, also he seems to have forgotten to put y-axes on the two graphs on the right. As it is, the four subgraphs seem to merge into each other. You really need some visual cues to separate them.
My other problem with this paper is its lack of ambition. In each case, an existing graph is redrawn with only slight changes. But what is really needed in economics, I think, is a larger sense of the importance of graphical discovery. The excitement of visualization is not conveyed in this article at all. Rather it all seems like a boring application of certain principles of graphics design.
I think the article is well-intentioned and may do some good. And the topic is important. But I agree with Jenkins: Schwabish should’ve taken a broader perspective. This was a bit of a wasted opportunity.