## Thursday, February 27, 2020

### Pie charts are lie charts

There are lots of chart types, but if you want to lie or mislead people, the best chart to use is the pie chart. I’m going to show you how to distort reality with pie charts, not so you can be a liar, but so you know never to use pie charts and to choose more honest visualizations.

Let's start with the one positive thing I know about pie charts: they're called camembert charts in France and cake charts in Germany. On balance, I prefer the French term, but we're probably stuck with the English term. Unlike camembert, pie charts often leave a bad taste in my mouth and I'll show you why.

(Camembert cheese - image credit: Coyau, Wikipedia - license : Creative Commons)

Take a look at the pie chart below. Can you put the six slices in order from largest to smallest? What percentages do you think the slices represent?

Here’s how I’ve misled you:

• Offset the slices from the 12 o’clock position to make size comparison harder. I've robbed you of the convenient 'clock face' frame of reference.
• Not put the slices in order (largest to smallest). Humans are bad at judging the relative sizes of areas and by playing with the order, I'm making it even harder.
• Not labeled the slices. This ought to be standard practice, but shockingly often isn't.
The actual percentages are:
 Gray 20.9 Green 17.5 Light blue 16.8 Dark blue 16.1 Yellow 15.4 Orange 13.3

How close were you? How good was my attempt to deceive you?

Let’s use a bar chart to represent the same data.

Simple, clear, unambiguous.

I've read guidance that suggests you should only use a pie chart if you're showing two quantities that are obviously unequal. This gives the so-called pac-man pie charts. Even here, I think there are better representations, and our old-friend the bar chart would work better (albeit less interestingly).

Now let’s look at the king of deceptive practices, the 3d pie chart. This one is great because you can thoroughly mislead while still claiming to be honest. I’m going to work through a short deceptive example.

Let’s imagine there are four political parties standing in an election. The percentage results are below.
 Dog 36 Cat 28 Mouse 21 Bird 15

You work for Bird, which unfortunately got the lowest share of the vote. Your job is to deceive the electorate into thinking Bird did much better than they did.

You can obscure the result by showing it as a pie chart without number labels. You can even mute the opposition colors to fool the eye. But you can go one better. You can create a 3d pie chart with shifted perspective and 'point explosion' using the data I gave above like so.

Here's what I did to create the chart:

• Took the data above as my starting point and created a pie chart.
• Rotated the chart so my slice was at the bottom.
• Made the pie chart 3d.
• Changed the perspective to emphasize my party.
• Used 'point explosion' to pull my slice out of the main body of the chart to emphasize it.