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BCHealthCare Newspaper's Visual Rot

I received some delicious Gordon Campbell propaganda in the mail today, I assume, along with everyone else in BC who has a mailing address.

The BCHealthCare newspaper was a glowing testament to how stellar our drunk-driving premier has managed our socialized health care system that he is currently privatizing.

All the bar charts, pie charts and tables in the world will not convince me of any inherent value in Campbell's neo-conservative disease of privatizing public assets and social programs like our health care system designed to provide the best possible health care equally for all because we are all equal citizens in our society.

I once taught at a junior high school with a highly innovative math and science teacher who developed amazing lessons for his students demonstrating the malleability of statistics. It seems one of these students has made it into the premier's office, or the Ministry of Health Services or Health Planning because this newspaper is full of visual rot. I always enjoyed walking the hallways of the science wing at that school to see the students' poster displaying their most ludicrous, disingenuous uses of statistics. I do not want to see these examples in government propaganda.

I will reproduce below my three favorites for you to see, granted with minor cosmetic variances. Compare for yourself at home with your own copy!

Page one has a nifty bar chart called "Total B.C. Health Care Funding has increased 23%." Even assuming all the numbers are accurate, the presentation of the data is misleading.

The chart construction is not, I suppose, technically incorrect because each axis is actually labeled accurately. The problem is in what the chart does not show. On first glance, people will assume that the bottom of the vertical Y-axis is zero, so all along the horizontal X-axis is a zero level. Why this assumption? The vertical axes usually start at zero. But if you label the axis correctly, you can start it anywhere you like. The Campbell regime started the Y-axis not at $0.00, but $8,000,000,000.00.

And while the onus is on the human being to read the chart carefully, many won't and what they will see is the bright red bar on the right, representing the Campbell regime's 2003/04 health care expenditures being over 3 times higher than the funding for 2000/01, the last year of those awful NDP MLA's who clearly didn't care as much about health care as the new regime does.

If drawn more fairly with, for instance, the Y-axis at $0.00 instead of $8,000,000,000.00, this chart should show that the beautiful regime red bar is less than 20% taller than the bar from the last NDP year in power. Visually, the difference is remarkable. Why put data in bar charts, anyway? To make the information more readily accessible and easier to comprehend without having to examine tables of numbers. Pictures are often more expressive than columns of numbers, each with up to 12 digits.

But the regime has taken "more expressive" and "readily accessible" as an opportunity to manipulate the data visually.

But this chart isn't the only piece of eye candy that people will see on the cover of this propaganda tool, especially the people who will never bother to open up the rest or look carefully at the numbers in wildly small font on blue background.

Right below is another chart, "Per Capita Spending on Health Care has increased 18.4%." Again, not quibbling with numbers, the chart demonstrates that the beautiful red bar on the right looks over twice as high as the pathetic, mongrelly blue bar from the NDP's last year; weren't they bad for us…thank god they aren't in government anymore, eh? Realistically, the red bar should only be roughly one-sixth taller than the first blue bar.

For both of these charts, to draw the graph with a Y-axis at $0.00 would definitely have taken up more vertical space on the page, but it would have reduced the sheer sexiness of the apparent mammoth leap in funding thanks to the people's new government in power. Thank god for the Campbell regime!

But the most exciting visual item in this propaganda rag is on page 3 and there's nothing wrong with the two pie charts under the title "Health Care is B.C.'s Number One Budget Expenditure." This is the top graphic on a page that if anyone were to open the front page and look at just one thing, like at the top of the page, they'd see these pie charts.

Pie chart number one indicates that ten years ago, during the third year of NDP rule, health expenditures were 33% of the provincial budget. The pie chart? One third is offset to indicate that amount.

Thank god for the Campbell regime, though, because in the "Today" chart, almost half, 42% of the provincial budget is spent on health. There are two ways to increase health care spending as a proportion of the provincial budget. The first is to actually increase spending, at least more than increases (or cuts, obviously) to other ministries. The second is to cut non-health expenditures, with or without cutting health care spending. In fact, as long as the new regime would merely cut non-health expenditures more than health care spending cuts, the health care spending proportion would also rise.

Since the regime has boasted so well about its spending cuts across the board, it's conceivable that health care spending hasn't grown at all, or has even declined. These pie charts are incapable of explaining how much of the 12 year increase of 9% is due to gouges and slashes in other ministries, nor can they show how much of that 9% increase took place in the first 9 of these intervening 12 years when the NDP was actually still in power.

And while other visual (mis)representations have irritated me, these three leap out at me as the most transparent attempts to convey misinformation.

People are busy. The BCHealthCare newspaper didn't have my name and address on it. It could be junk mail spam. How many people have the time or energy to do what everyone should do with statistics: examine them carefully to see if first glances are deceiving. How many of us are swamped in the mire of political apathy with a government that earned 58% of the popular vote in 2001, which converted into 77 of 79 seats in the legislature in our skewed electoral system, and refused to grant official party status to the 2 opposition members, thereby keeping them from government funds for staffing and research.

And for all those busy or apathetic people who glanced at the first page and maybe the first visual item on the third page without reading anything but headlines, the regime has misled them, with plausible deniability since people are responsible for their own due diligence in reading statistics, the same kind of due diligence the Campbell campaign counted on when campaigning on a tax cut in 2001...and who doesn't want a tax cut? The due diligence that people neglected then would have led to a conclusion that a tax cut means spending cuts and that only self-deluding people will believe the rhetoric that tax cuts pay for themselves, because they don't and they haven't and any economist or Campbell strategist knows that well enough.

So fish out your BCHealthCare newspaper from recycling and start going through it and ask yourself about all the possible alternate explanations that exist for the data and examine their graphics to see if you've been duped. On May 17, 2005, Campbell will take a duped person's vote as easily as someone who knows better and just doesn't care. Make sure you're neither.

Stephen Buckley
Copyright 2003

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