Framing, selection, and presentation issues


in Geek stuff, M.Phil thesis, Politics, Science, Security, The environment

Harris Manchester College, Oxford

One of the major issues that arises when examining the connections between science and policy are the ways information is framed. You can say that the rate of skin cancer caused by a particular phenomenon has increased from one in ten million cases to one in a million cases. You can say that the rate has increased tenfold, or that it has gone up by 1000%. Finally, you could say that an individual’s chances of getting skin cancer from this source have gone up from one tiny figure to a larger, but still tiny seeming, figure. People seem to perceive the risks involved in each presentation differently, and people pushing for one policy or another can manipulate that. This can be especially true when the situations being described are of not comparably rare: having your chances of being killed through domestic violence reduced 1% is a much greater absolute reduction than having your chances of dying in a terrorist attack reduced by 90%.


When talking about presentation of information, graphs are an important case. Normally, they are a great boon to understanding. A row of figures means very little to most people, but a graph provides a wealth of comprehensible information. You can see if there is a trend, what direction it is in, and approximately how strong it is. The right sort of graph, properly presented, can immediately illuminate the meaning of a dataset. Likewise, it can provide a compelling argument: at least, between those who disagree more about what is going on than how it would be appropriate to respond to different situations.

People see patterns intuitively, though sometimes they see order in chaos (the man on the moon, images of the Virgin Mary in cheese sandwiches). Even better, they have an automatic grasp of calculus. People who couldn’t tell you a thing about concavity and the second derivative can immediately see when a slope is upwards and growing ever steeper: likewise, one where something is increasing or decreasing, but at a decreasing rate. They can see what trends will level off, and which ones will explode off the scale. My post on global warming damage curves illustrates this.

Naturally, it is possible to use graphs in a manipulative way. You can tweak the scale, use a broken scale, or use a logarithmic scale without making clear what that means. You can position pie charts so that one part or another is emphasized, as well as abuse colour and three dimensional effects. That said, the advantages of graphs clearly outweigh the risks.

It is interesting to note how central a role one graph seems to have played in the debate about CFCs and ozone: the one of the concentration of chlorine in the stratosphere. Since that is what CFCs break down to produce, and that is what causes the breakdown of ozone, the concentration is clearly important. The graph clearly showing that concentrations would continue to rise, even under the original Montreal Protocol, seems to have had a big impact on the two rounds of further tightening. Perhaps the graph used so prominently in Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth (the trends on display literally dwarfing him) will eventually have a similar effect.

Stats in recent personal experience

My six-month old Etymotic ER6i headphones are being returned to manufacturer tomorrow, because of the problems with the connector I reported earlier. Really not something you expect for such a premium product, but I suppose there are always going to be some defects that arise in a manufacturing process. Of course, being without good noise isolating headphones for the time it will take them to be shipped to the US, repaired or replaced, and returned means that reading in coffee shops is not a possibility. Their advantage over libraries only exists when you are capable of excluding the great majority of outside noise and of drowning the rest in suitable music.

Speaking of trends, I do wonder why so many of my electronics seem to run into problems. I think this is due to a host of selection effects. I (a) have more electronics than most people (b) use them a great deal (c) know how they are meant to work (d) know what sort of warranties they have and for how long (e) treat them so carefully that manufacturers can never claim they were abused (f) maintain a willingness to return defective products, as many times as is necessary and possible under the warranty. Given all that, it is not surprising that my own experience with electronics failing and being replaced under warranty is a lot greater than what you might estimate the background rate of such activity to be.

Two other considerations are also relevant. It is cheaper for manufacturers to rely upon consumers to test whether a particular item is defective, especially since some consumers will lose the item, abuse it, or simply not bother to return it even if defective. Secondly, it is almost always cheaper to simply replace consumer electronics to fix them, because of the economies of scale involved in either activity. From one perspective, it seems wasteful. From another, it seems the more frugal option. A bit of a paradox, really.

[14 March 2007] My replacement Etymotic headphones arrived today. Reading in coffee shops is possible again, and none too soon.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous February 26, 2007 at 11:22 pm

You’re right about domestic violence. About one out of three women who are murdered are killed by their husband or boyfriend.

There are some scary statistics over at

Milan February 26, 2007 at 11:37 pm

That is a very dispiriting statistic.

Those interested in graphs as modes of presentation / learning tools should have a look at this page of activities on ozone depletion. I think it is meant for high school or elementary school students, and it really illustrates how graphs are more comprehensible than data tables.

Brett February 27, 2007 at 8:05 am

Have you read any Ulrich Beck? He has some great stuff on science, Techno-rationality and risk perception. Risk Society is the one you would want to check out.

Pippa February 27, 2007 at 2:09 pm

I was interested to read your blog and what you think about how environmental problems are identified as problems in the first place (re your example of mining). I think something that is relevant in people’s perceptions of perceived problems is:

probability x severity of the consequences (to the individual as well as to society).

For something like thalidomide, the tragic and costly consequences mean that this is perceived as an issue right from the start for everyone (men included), even though only pregnant women taking the drug in the first trimester between the 20th and 36th day after conception were at risk of delivering malformed infants (

Interesting how since anti-retroviral drugs were developed and available in most of the West (improving life expectancy and reducing the perceived consequences of contracting AIDS), the steam seems to have gone out of the fight against AIDS (perceptions has shifted from ‘we are all going to die’ in the 1980s to ‘mostly Africans are going to die’, which is presumably less worrying for public health policy-makers). Instead of being the mass pandemic that it was initially publicised as, it is now perceived – wrongly – as a niche disease for homosexuals, drug-users and in certain parts of the world. AIDS is creeping into the mainstream population throughout Russia and CIS countries. When will they realise that African or Turkmenistani blood is just as precious as American blood and our fates are interlinked??

Milan February 27, 2007 at 4:41 pm


I have read no Ulrich Beck. Right now, I am focusing intensely on the origins of the NCP and IPCC. Given that I have a chapter on that to submit for tomorrow, this seems sensible. That said, I have added the suggestion to one of my central listings.

Milan February 27, 2007 at 4:43 pm


I think you raise a good point about awareness, and what might be termed ‘awareness fatigue.’ We can only be worried about something for so long before it stops carrying a lot of emotive power. Trying to combat that, whether in the case of AIDS or Darfur, is pretty difficult.

chicko May 27, 2007 at 5:01 am

you really need to put some bloody graphs on this site

Jason December 14, 2007 at 11:05 am

I’ve read this post after doing a search for ER6i and problems. I also have a pair of ER6is, and after about 5 months had a similar failure. I returned them for replacement, and now, 6 months later, these too have failed. I was just curious if your replacement set had any further issues?

Milan December 14, 2007 at 11:22 am


I have had no problems with my replacement set of ER6is.

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