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Redlands Forum speaker fights fake news, urging critical thinking about graphics

Alberto Cairo delivering his presentation titled  "Visual Trumpery: How to fight against fake data and visualizations.”
“What worries me is that charts can still be very persuasive, whether people can read them or not,” said Redlands Forum speaker Alberto Cairo. (Photo by Taylor Matousek '18)

Out of a growing concern that journalists are leaving citizens behind with the creation of complex informational graphics, Alberto Cairo, the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the University of Miami, has dedicated himself to educating the public about what they see in the media. 

On Tuesday, he spoke at the University of Redlands, delivering a presentation titled “Visual Trumpery: How to fight against fake data and visualizations.” “The word ‘trumpery’ means worthless nonsense, or something that is showy and deceitful at the same time,” said Cairo. “It can occur in text, verbally, or visually.” 

To begin, Cairo presented the audience with a scatter plot chart from the Pew Research Center.  He explained the chart—a simple display of regional sugar intake versus the number of decayed teeth in each region—and revealed that only 63 percent of American adults can correctly understand the graphic.

“Even though this kind of chart has been around for more than 150 years, there are still people who cannot understand it,” said Cairo. “What worries me is that charts can still be very persuasive, whether people can read them or not.” 

Cairo went on to emphasize the power of images and informational graphics. “Researchers have pointed out that we tend to subconsciously believe that numbers are objective,” he said. “Even when a graph has nothing do to with the content of the article it is paired with, readers are more likely to believe the article.” 

In an effort to fight back against misleading information and graphics, Cairo offered five questions to ask when reading articles:

  • Is the designer or writer using the right data and disclosing its origin? Cairo emphasized that charts aren’t meant to be seen; they’re meant to be read.
  • Are you reading too much into the graphic? Don’t allow personal biases to get in the way of understanding graphics, because a chart can show as much as it hides.
  • Is the data represented accurately? If there a disconnect between the title and the data visualization, the graphic is most likely incorrect. 
  • Is the graphic showing an appropriate amount of data? Ensure that the visualization reveals the context of the data, and not just bare numbers. 
  • Is uncertainty relevant? If so, is it revealed? If the graphic’s margin of error would change the visualization, verify that is expressed.  

Cairo emphasized the importance of paying attention and urged the audience to think critically when it comes to media consumption. Being wary of common clichés and misconceptions in article titles, such as “This chart speaks for itself” or “This graph shows everything you need to know about [subject],” which can reveal faulty information as well. 

While Cairo provided advice, he also acknowledged it will only help people for whom the fight against fake data is a priority. In closing, he ceded, “A critical thinking revolution won’t lead us anywhere if it isn’t paired with a moral reasoning revolution.”

Learn more about Alberto Cairo’s work on his personal website and lecture tour website.  

The recent talk was part of the Redlands Forum, which is co-hosted by Esri and the University of Redlands Town and Gown. Next up in the series is “Black Nightingales: Lady Day, Ella, and Sassy” by University of Rochester’s vice president, Dr. Paul Burgett, on Wednesday, November 8, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., registration required. For more information, see the Redlands Forum website