When is a bad graphic a good graphic?

This graphic (from SolarPowerRocks.com, which also gives references for the numbers, which I have not checked) is pretty neat. It compares annual U.S. energy R&D expenditures with the cost of the war in Iraq (one might well question whether it is reasonable or even meaningful to compare those, but that’s not what this post is about). The graphic is neat precisely because it is so useless: it makes the point that the costs that it compares are so wildly different in magnitude that you can’t even plot them on the same graph. Of course any of us could think of ways that you could plot them on the same graph, but that would make the graphic more informative at the expense of making it useless for its intended purpose.

SolarPowerRocks.com says “These figures are in millions. The source for energy R&D expenditures is from the National Council for Science and the Environment. “


One thing worth pointing out, I guess: As Andrew and I have discussed for literally decades, this is the sort of thing that makes people say “if we can afford the war in Iraq, we can afford to spend $X on solar power research.” But that works the wrong way: we can’t afford the solar power research, because we’re spending all of that money in Iraq!

3 thoughts on “When is a bad graphic a good graphic?

  1. I saw that. and liked the shape, but there was one aspect of the design I didn't like: the dotty dithered patterns in the fields. They bloat the picture file to 300K, when it would have been only a fraction of the size if the fields had been a uniform color.

  2. And also "if we had spent that much money on alternative power sources 10 years ago we wouldn't care about the oil in Iraq today because we wouldn't need it.

    Weaning our world off finite resources for power will increase world security. better to have no need for a war than try to make sure we will win any wars we are in.


  3. Great graph[ic] is somewhat disingenuous. In terms of our economy the Iraq "War" is and was necessary to hold up our end of the deal President Nixon made with the Saudi princes to cover their backside in exchange for OPEC oil being denominated US dollars. That deal made everything that has been "good" economically since 1973 possible . . . until just about three months prior to this blog post when the consequences of the irresponsible growth of M3 (a measure of the money supply) started to unravel and bringing us/US to where we are today, a year and three months later, in what has been a, somewhat controlled, free fall.

    I would argue it has only been necessary to fund R&D as graphed because of Nixon's deal. Energy has been cheap, and, relative to inflation, getting cheaper. In a culture that values making money over all things sustainable (except, perhaps, sustaining an unsustainable economic model), the expenditure in Iraq is a bargain relative to the alternative, having OPEC oil sales denominated in any other currency.

    In addition, there is so much that can be done with existing solar technology, conservation, and energy efficiency that is not being done because of the agreement with the Saudis. Until the consumer consumes what's already been developed, what is the need for more R&D? Isn't it social marketing of existing means of avoiding (as another of the comments notes) the need for the war in Iraq what has been lacking?

    It is ironic that we ended up supporting the US dollar's hegemony as we have in Iraq, only to have that hegemony–and the authenticity of all fiat currencies–implode. We will be forced into using the simple means for dealing with our environmental, economic and energy crises as only the simple stuff will be somewhat possible in a time of deflation and economic collapse, and then, only with a great deal of trust and cooperation. Causal inferences can be distracting and misleading, but then social sciences are never nice and neat are they?

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