The Captain Was Sober Today

Photo Credit Mike Beard via Creative Commons/Flickr
Photo Credit Mike Baird via Creative Commons/Flickr

I really enjoy reading many of Paul Kedrosky’s blog posts at Infectious Greed.  He writes about the economy and finance.

He had a post yesterday called  “The Pelosi Graph” in which he critiques the graph/chart circling the web that is meant to show how drastic U.S. job losses are now compared to the two most recent recessions. He presents an alternative graph that is a bit more informative and bit less polemical — because it provides greater context (chiefly percentage vs. absolute data).

The point for communicators, of course, is that charts can be designed to emphasize or de-emphasize certain facts and make certain points. It’s not about truth, but about what parts of the truth somebody is trying to emphasize.

Graphs can be just like language in this way. This old and famous story gives an extreme example.

“The first mate on a ship decided to celebrate an occasion with a “little” stowed away rum. Unfortunately he got drunk and was still drunk the next morning. The captain saw him drunk and when the first mate was sober, showed him the following entry in the ship’s log: “The first mate was drunk today.” “Captain please don’t let that stay in the log”, the mate said. “This could add months or years to my becoming a captain myself.” “Is it true?” asked the captain, already knowing the answer. “Yes, its true” the mate said. “Then if it is true it has to go in the log. That’s the rule. If its true it goes into the log, end of discussion” said the captain sternly. Weeks later, it was the first mate’s turn to make the log entries. The first mate wrote: “The ship seems in good shape. The captain was sober today.”

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