Walking through the park last night, Fox ruminated to me that she was so annoyed watching one of the American presidential candidates puffing and huffing on the television about how polls couldn’t be true, because he was drawing big crowds of support. Exasperated, she waved a hand and said “Yeah, you fill an auditorium of a thousand people in a country of three hundred million.”
Yesterday, I watched timelines quietly fill with people swapping around memes about this is what the electoral map would look like and making fun of Nate Silver. Not necessarily the same thing, natch, but still.
I sat down and ruminated on this all day. See, one of my personal bugbears about journalism is my oft-repeated notion that Journalism is the task of putting data in meaningful context. The whole point of visualisations and data maps and tweet-sized comparisons is to try and provide people with context that escapes them intuitively. Like, for example, looking at a room full of supporters of one candidate and being horrifiedly certain that he’s going to win.
We are not good at making these judgments intuitively. What our brains do when they sort information is check for the things that are easiest to remember and turns out that it’s super easy for us to remember dealing with a super racist asshole. This is part of why cops are so inclined to think of people as criminals – it’s really easy for them to remember times when it turned out Someone Was A Criminal, so they tend to bias towards that. It’s why experts academics are likely to think problems are caused by The Area Of Their Expertise. You find what you’re used to looking for.
Visualisations and data points are not here to solve everything, they’re here to try and give your mind ways to anchor to information that’s otherwise hard to put into context.