Alberto Cairo’s How Charts Lie: an Alt-Disappointed Book Review

To tell you the truth, I don’t like the word “lie”: it feels obvious and unsophisticated. I prefer something like “reframing truth”, “alternative facts” or an English word I recently discovered, “paltering” (lying with the truth). Wanting to improve my skills in that area, I had great expectations about Alberto Cairo’s most recent book, How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information where he discusses this topic at length. Well, after reading it, my dark side found the book incredibly boring. The intellectual satisfaction of learning new and mischievous ways of deceiving others is just not there.

A data visualization book for the… ugh… people

A chart is an interpretation of the data (and, by extension, of reality). In a broad sense, they all lie, just like most other forms of communication. But charts are a relatively new form, and still have an aura of objectivity and truth. Which means they have a lot of potential for deceiving in the hands of a masterful practitioner. Cairo is of the most well-known and brightest members of the data visualization communities. He could easily write the ultimate book on #dataviz potions and how to actually make them. Instead, he lost his time (and potentially huge sales) writing a dada book (D.A.D.A., as you know, is the silly notion that there can be a Defense Against the Dark Arts)

The prologue was promising, but when he writes “Good charts make us smarter” I start suspecting that he actually means it. The notion that this was a lost opportunity creeps in with each turn of the page. Cairo goes to excruciating detail explaining each concept, exposing each lie and providing context (like pointing out that some “lies” are in fact a visual expression of our psychological biases, some of which we are not even aware of). He even discusses ethics, which adds to the overall nuisance.

Nothing new to see here. Trust me.

So, nothing here is very new to the practitioner of the dark arts in data visualization. If you want to improve your skills for deceiving you should look elsewhere. The book does provide some clues on your opponent’s strengths, so I wouldn’t dismiss it completely. Other than that, it’s a waste of time.

OK, I concede that this is an excellent resource if you are mostly a consumer of data. This book was written specifically for you. Lucky you. It will gently make you aware that charts are meant to be read, not just seen. Although a chart can indeed help us learn more and faster, to take advantage of them you need to keep your internal lie detector turned on, and this book will give it a boost by showing how charts lie. And make my life a bit more difficult.

Hi! Let me just whisper a few words while my dark self is busy getting ready for Halloween: don’t pay attention to him. Knowing how to read a chart and being able to evaluate its trustworthiness are becoming citizenship life skills, not only professional skills. This book is accessible, well-written and provides you with good thinking tools to help you navigate this growing volume of visual data. Highly recommended, of course.