How to lie with graphs

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PC Leader Jamie Baillie’s election promise to hold power rates at current levels came in a position paper that included the following unsourced graph, purporting to show that something called “energy costs to rate payers,” measured in units it did not explain, have increased by 27 percent since 2009:


Wow, that certainly looks shocking!

Contrarian is no statistician, and my graphic skills are tenuous, but I read Darrell Huff‘s classic How to Lie with Statistics shortly after it came out in 1954, and Chapter 5, “The Gee Whiz Graph,” stuck with me. Of the persuasive power of graphs, Huff had this advice for readers deploying them to “win an argument, shock a reader, move him into action, sell him something:”

Chop off the bottom.

Baillie did exactly that with his “energy costs” graph. He chopped off the bottom 64% of the graph. If you start the y-axis at zero, and display the graph in the same horizontal format, it looks like this (with apologies to readers skilled in PhotoShop and Illustrator).


It’s still a significant increase, but not quite so scary or election-worthy as Baillie’s manipulated format. If anyone has the time to parse exactly what’s included in, and excluded from, “energy costs to rate payers,” I suspect we will find that Baillie has selected the fastest rising component of electricity bills to inflate his point.

Bear in mind, too, that the period covered by the graph roughly corresponds to a reduction in Nova Scotia Power’s use of dirty coal from 80 percent to just above 50 percent. That phenomenal drop is a good thing, rarely mentioned by the company’s critics.

Even so, it’s reasonable to ask whether there is some mechanism that could give Nova Scotia access to North American electricity markets and the pricing stability they could bring. Since the first electricity was produced in Nova Scotia early in the 20th Century, we have never had the ability to import or export significant amounts of power.

The reasonable answer is: The Maritime Link, whose principal side benefit, steadfastly ignored by critics, is the robust connection to the North American Grid it would create through Newfoundland, Labrador, and Quebec to the north, New Brunswick and New England to the west. Aside from a guaranteed 35-year supply of predictably priced power, that is the best argument for building The Maritime Link.

[Disclosure: From time to time, I have consulted for NS Power and Emera on issues related to power rates and the Maritime Link. Reasonable people can and do disagree about Nova Scotia energy issues, but they ought to avoid misleading graphics.]

Pundits’ Guide responds – corrected

In our ongoing tussle over the nature of vote-splitting and whether it can be said to account for the Harper majority (earlier installment here and on Twitter), Alice Funke of Pundits’ Guide has kindly supplied the requested table of ridings where incumbent Liberals lost to the Conservative Party of Canada, and where the margin of victory was smaller than the increase in the NDP vote.


[Contrarian reader Joey Schwartz noticed an error in the first version of this chart, which Funke has NOW corrected. My thanks to both.]

In all, 15 seats meet my criteria, enough (if one accepts some assumptions Funke rejects) to reduce the Harper seat tally to a 151-seat minority.

Alice and I differ as to whether this is a valid rough-and-ready measure of seats where vote-splitting by progressives cost Liberal seats. She points out that in one of these seats, Yukon, the Greens placed third, and their vote rose more than the NDP. In nine six others, the CPC vote rose more than the NDP. The Liberals had already lost one seat, Vaughan, in a byelection, and voter turnout increased across the board.

I acknowledge the likelihood that a lot of Liberals and 2008 non-voters swung to the CPC in 2011; my argument is that enough Liberals swung to the NDP in these ridings to facilitate a Harper majority. As with all counterfactual arguments, it’s a matter for debate. Funke  responds (after the jump): Continue reading Pundits’ Guide responds – corrected