Into my Google Reader this morning came a post from Biophemera (an intriguing blog at the interface of art and science). Scientist-artist-blogger Jessica Palmer offers a provocative clip featuring Alex Lundry, a self-described conservative political pollster, data-miner and data visualizer.

Alex Lundry Chart Wars: The Political Power of Data Visualization
more about “Alex Lundry Chart Wars: The Political…

Some excerpts:

“These charts are meant to illustrate the political power of data visualization. It’s a discipline that’s only just beginning to bloom as a messaging vehicle…

“So what changed, why now?” he asks rhetorically.

“Well of course the internet…What’s really changed is data. We capture more data, we store more data and more data is available to us in machine-readable parsable format. So it’s really gotten to the point where anybody with a computer can create a data visualization easily enough…

“Here are a few quick lessons in graphical literacy…You’ll see that messing around with the origin and axis can make unimpressive growth look pretty amazing, right?…

——

Scary stuff. We’re vulnerable to brainwashing by pie graphs with pretty colors. Men are hired to collect and represent data with a particular aim. And there’s more to come this way, faster than ever by twitter.

So why here? Why a Medical Lesson?

Because the same is true for health information.

——

One of the first rules of medicine is knowing your sources. Before you make a decision, consider: did you read or hear about a treatment in a textbook, in a reputable journal, at a scientific meeting or over lunch with a representative from a pharmaceutical company?

Immersed in data as we are, it’s tempting to grasp at the best-presented material regardless of its intrinsic value. Nifty graphs can persuade or fool even the best of us.

For patients:

1. Know your doctor – be aware of industry ties, academic connections and other sources of pressure to perceive or publish results more clearly than they are;

2. Distinguish ads from articles about health – the difference is not always clear, especially on-line;

3. Read the fine print and identify the perspective of who’s depicting “data” in charts and graphs – when medical information comes onto your TV screen or magazine page, there’s a good chance someone’s got something to sell you.

For doctors:

1. Remember the difference between peer-reviewed journals and PeerView Press (a CME company with a host of industry sponsors, one of many such that provide free, neatly-packaged information targeted to busy doctors);

2. Take the trouble to read the methods and statistical sections of published papers in your field – your patients are counting on you to discern good studies from bad;

3. Don’t forget we’re human, too. We’re vulnerable, drawn to promising new results –

Mind those origins and axes!

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