This beautiful graphic is not really that useful

This beautiful infographic from the excellent blog Information is Beautiful has been making the rounds. You can see a bigger version here, and it’s worth poking around for a bit. The creators take all deaths from the 20th century (drawing from several sources) and represent their relative contribution with circles:

I appreciate their footnote that says the graphic has “some inevitable double-counting, broad estimation and ball-park figures.” That’s certainly true, but the inevitably approximate nature of these numbers isn’t my beef.

The problem is that I don’t think raw numbers of deaths tell us very much, and can actually be quite misleading. Someone who saw only this infographic might well end up less well-informed than if they didn’t see it. Looking at the red circles you get the impression that non-communicable and infectious diseases were roughly equivalent in importance in the 20th century, followed by “humanity” (war, murder, etc) and cancer.

The root problem is that mortality is inevitable for everyone, everywhere. This graphic lumps together pneumonia deaths at age 1 with car accidents at age 20, and cancer deaths at 50 with heart disease deaths at 80. We typically don’t  (and I would argue should’t) assign the same weight to a death in childhood or the prime of life with one that comes at the end of a long, satisfying life.  The end result is that this graphic greatly overemphasizes the importance of non-communicable diseases in the 20th century — that’s the impression most laypeople will walk away with.

A more useful graphic might use the same circles to show the years of life lost (or something like DALYs or QALYs) because those get a bit closer at what we care about. No single number is actually  all that great, so we can get a better understanding if we look at several different outcomes (which is one problem with any visualization). But I think raw mortality numbers are particularly misleading.

To be fair, this graphic was commissioned by Wellcome as “artwork” for a London exhibition, so maybe it should be judged by a different standard…

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03 2013

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