07 10 / 2013

I’m not a very visually creative person, but as a scientist (in public health) I often have to come up with visual ways of explaining complicated data. Public health research findings are often covered by journalists with little training in understanding the measures we use to describe correlation and risk. Think of those articles your weird relative posts on facebook: “coffee/chocolate/cell phones/etc. cause/prevent cancer!!!” Those articles are probably wild misinterpretations of actual public health research.

Because of this, a surprising but consistent emphasis in my classes is presenting data in honest but simple ways. These two graphs come from one of my favorite lectures on the topic. The top one is a pretty typical table of percent survival rates for different types of cancers.  The bottom is a much clearer (in my opinion) graph of these same numbers.

I think about that second graph all the time. I started working in public health the same year my grandmother was diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer. Despite that, it wasn’t until I saw this graph 5 years later that it really hit me how lucky it is that she is still alive. Even as a numbers person, it’s easy to avoid the message in the first table. Good data presentation tells a story that is difficult to misinterpret, no matter how untrained or blinded you are.

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    Really neat!
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