This isn’t the worst graph I have ever seen, but it is far enough up there in the pantheon of cringeworthy examples of bad graphics to serve as an illustration of the dangers of letting lazy or even malicious thinking mate with graphical competence.
After all, it is a well-executed graphic. The titles are clear, the axes are well defined, the colours are primary for the important data points and muted for the less important ones. I am guessing that the relative size weighting of the bubbles is also correct and that a bubble 10 times the size of another really does indicate ten times more of whatever is being represented (in this case trade volumes with the EU). So, well done EU HQ visual display bods for showing us what a well-executed graph looks like. A job at the BIS or McKinsey (the current high temples of professional graphics standards) is surely yours for the asking.
No, it is not the execution that makes this graph so subversive. It’s the content or rather, the implied conclusion that the graphs originators would have us draw from the interplay of two data aggregations that they have deviously combined for a particular purpose that makes this invidious.
This graph has been tweeted and reposted around the digital chatter chambers over the past 24 hours and has inspired much commentary about the state of play of the current negotiations between M. Barbier (of the EU, in the blue corner) and Mr. Frost (of the UK in the red corner) in respect of the trade agreement (or disagreement), currently being thrashed out. The commentary is entirely consistent with the respective remoan or leave perspectives of the chatterers concerned, as you would expect. As a consequence of its mass reproduction one might think that there was some message of great import that a mere scanning of the base data would obscure from the interested analyst, some significant insight that only the synthesis of the data in a graphic form renders comprehensible. This, after all, is the whole point of the effort of translating quantitative data into a visual display, a point made at length, beautifully illustrated and far more competently than I could by Prof. Edward Tufte of Yale University some 30 years ago in his marvellous self-published series of books on the subject. Graphs have to tell you something important, lead you to some conclusion that a mere study of the numbers would not allow. Which is one reason why three-dimensional pie-charts are the height of graphic idiocy: who needs to know what 25% looks like compared to 18%, 52%, 3% and 2%? And then in 3D? What extra information is gifted the reader by graphically comparing a quarter, a half and some lesser numbers that total 100% that was unavailable from the column of numbers? And then in 3D? Or in colour? Or both?
The EU trade graphic is almost as bad as a 3D pie chart but with an extra dash of pernicious sophistry, for which the EU bureaucracy is rightly famed. The graph makes the following point:
- Some countries do a lot of trade with the EU, some don’t do as much. And
- Some countries are located close to the EU and some aren’t.
The sophistry lies in combining these two probably at some understandable level not wholly uncorrelated data sets and then presenting the resultant coordinates as conveying some deep truth that would not otherwise be available to us.
The real point – for which the visual display bods probably had to put in a night shift -is to ensure that the UK appears as the biggest blob in a sea of blobs as far down in the left-hand corner as possible, so as to make the supremely relevant point that the UK DOES A LOT OF TRADE with the EU and is REALLY CLOSE. Information that of course would not have been available to anyone studying both columns of data independently.
Unfortunately, when you start manipulating data for political purposes, it starts behaving in ways that require you to keep manipulating it even more just to keep it “on message”. Central Bankers and their political masters are learning this the hard way at the moment, but have become wonderfully proficient at the art. In this instance, the only way that the dramatic political message could be transported was by inverting the Y-axis so that the trade numbers expressed in % scaled from largest to smallest. If you were to invert the inversion the graph would lose almost all of its dramatic impact and just look silly.
Not that the actual result is devoid of silliness. When it comes to representing geographical proximity on an XY chart, you are pushing the bounds of what the genre will comfortably bear, much as when I try to drive my daughter’s second hand 2002 Ford Fiesta up Red Lane with its 25% incline: it will do it, but it is highly stressful and the outcome uncertain. A trained observer will note that Switzerland is portrayed in the middle of the first zone of the x-axis, somehow suggesting that Switzerland, with its four eurozone country borders is somehow a distance further away from the EU than the UK which whilst separated by a stretch of ocean appears to have ceded a portion of its landmass about the size of Cornwall to the EU itself as, by logical extension the portion on the left-hand side of the y-axis must be in the EU. Last time I tried to cross the border, Switzerland was exactly 0 inches (sorry, 0 cms) from the EU whereas if I attempted a similar crossing from the UK, I would drown.
Clever graph designers will surely cry foul as that is not at all what is meant. The distance mus be measured from the middle of the country (Bern? Derby?) to the centre of the EU (somewhere just east of Bratislava on my reckoning but the EU is such an odd shape) . Anyway, even on that metric, Cornwall still doesn’t end up as part of Normandy and the graph collapses under the weight of its own silliness.
What we can deduce from all of this is that our partners and friends in Brussels are getting woefully short of arguments and like Stanley Baxter in the last phase of the Battle of Rourke’s Drift, deuced close to running out of ammo altogether (not sure I like casting the EU in the role of that heroic beleaguered garrison, but you get my drift, no pun intended). If the only argument left is that the “ UK DOES A LOT OF TRADE with the EU and is REALLY CLOSE to us” so we have to impose our conditions on you, then it may not be long before that the only negotiating tactic left will be to burst into tears, stomp their feet and take their toys away.
Alternatively, they could look at their own chart and come to the realisation that the UK DOES A LOT OF TRADE with the EU and is REALLY CLOSE, so it might be a REALLY GOOD IDEA to come to the best possible arrangement with them. Until then, expect more hilarious graphs from Brussels.