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An exciting new entry in the “clueless graphs from clueless rich guys” competition


Jeff Lax points to this post from Matt Novak linking to a post by Matt Taibbi that shares the above graph from newspaper columnist / rich guy Thomas Friedman.

I’m not one to spend precious blog space mocking bad graphs, so I’ll refer you to Novak and Taibbi for the details.

One thing I do want to point out, though, is that this is not necessarily the worst graph promulgated recently by a zillionaire. Let’s never forget this beauty which was being spread on social media by wealthy human Peter Diamandis:



  1. Ana says:

    Worth bringing up your rhetorical question from the other post:

    “Perhaps to be successful in that area it helps to be a bit credulous?”

    I suspect that the “area” you referred to is the wealth bracket; I’d rather make the same statement about a subset of life thereof: charitable pursuits … Credulity does not seem much rewarded beyond.

  2. Corey says:

    I was about to make a Pastafarian Pirate Graph joke about that bottom one, but then I realized that I had almost certainly already done so.

  3. anon says:

    re the slavery plot, the clarity with which the unit of the y axis is conveyed to be a percentage almost makes up for the weird transformation of time that is the x axis and that the data points are probably rubbish.

  4. Jonathan says:

    In former, the “human adaptability” scale is utter nonsense. You can graph anything you want against it using any scale you want and that would be a graph of something versus nonsense. Is there value in that? Well, you could graph “human adaptability” in several forms: straight line, which shows that technology is obviously improving, and up line, which suggests that technology somehow influences our capacity for “ha” – and yes that’s a joke. Or you could turn the line down, which suggests that technology makes “ha” worse. That’s the meaning of nonsense, of noise that can’t be decomposed into signal: it could have either effect, in either direction (and that’s true if you assign different meanings to “ha”), meaning the signs matter and the amplitudes cancel, and the effects as meted over some definable space are layered or folded so they come out to 0, the line that technology is improving. Much of the problem in analysis is people see one of these folds and miss the other layers that fold back. I like bringing that out.

    [This is a detour so it’s in brackets to skip over. As to “ha”: how can one argue with a straight face that the development of tools, language and the transmission of learning over generations isn’t more impressive than PASCAL and a 3D printer, especially when we still rely on antibiotics found by accident when Fleming came back from vacation to find dead bacteria? IMO, the greatest step in “ha” is contained in the concept of the sabbath. I don’t know where that idea originated but it’s appearance in Genesis is remarkable because it implies a connection like this: we’re made in God’s image as part of creation that is all made in God’s image and we need to rest and the animals all rest and plants only grow and come to seed at certain times and fruit blooms only after it grows from a bud and this happens in everything. Bees move to make a new hive, meaning the old one no longer suffices for all those bees. Your child, your dog, your horse, learns what you teach it through a combination of demonstration of what to do and what not to do and there’s always a difference in the concept that this is reward and this is punishment and this is good or at least what you want, which might be good or not depending on what it is and what you’ve done to get it, and in each of these things there is a difference, just as there is between night and day though the exact moment of when night becomes day and day becomes night is not truly possible to discern – and is obviously discerned differently by animals who come out or go home as it gets dark or light – except when you look back or forward and conclude, “then it was light” or “soon it will be dark”. Our ancestors could see these things, could draw their meanings together because they had these things in front of them and not Hamiltonians and partial differential equations, and so they realized that since between all things there is a difference and that difference is the rest within the lives of any living thing, then God must also rest. The reduction of this abstraction to the conception of a day out of a week is, I tend to think, one of if not the first second order abstraction rendered, one that takes all these other observations, abstracts each of them and then all of them, and says not only is this how things are in our world but also how things are in the realm which makes this world and – this is the second order part – we abstract this statement again so it becomes the organizing principle for how we should live. I include in that the idea of 8, because circumcision which occurs on the 8th day means the boy will have lived through a 7 day cycle and thus we people can deem that boy to be “ours”. I say this as a non-sabbath respecting Jew.]

    As to the second, I have no idea what percentage of the world’s population was technically “slave” at any time. Some might say slavery has increased because now we’ve shifted from a “do this work and you’ll get sustenance economy” to one of “wage slavery” in which sustenance is less stable and as the “sustenance provider” trying to provide something near the minimum sustenance has become “employer” who wants to extract the lowest cost when that cost may not even provide minimum sustenance. My point is even if the numbers in this graph are accurate, they only would mean this small thing and not something larger. It reminds me of the arguments about the change in the number of conflicts: maybe the number of conflicts has gone down and maybe even the percentage of people killed in x or y has also gone down but at the expense of extremely large numbers in relatively few events up to MAD, meaning to rein us in it took the mutually assured destruction of a radioactive wasteland in which the “winners” would live in mineshafts for 100 years. Or where I live, we have a large recycling program. Great until you learn that the stuff collected sits in places because the market for much recycled material relied on empty ships carrying stuff to Asia and the Chinese et al no longer want that stuff. So one could put together a graph showing the growth in recycling and it would say next to nothing about the environment and our impact on it, other than of course that recycling has grown. Given the costs of melting glass, for all I know the process is a net environmental negative.

  5. Dzhaughn says:

    I think it is confusing to read Friedman’s “We are here” as suggesting that “You are here, too.”

    In this light, the graph expresses the idea that he and his smarter-governing super-hero homies have been changing faster than mere humans, but, alas, the world has now reached a point at which technology is changing faster than even he can change his story.

  6. Chris J says:

    Friedman has a point, but this graph may not be the best way to make it. A “Technology” curve is not necessarily a terrible start, but he stutters on the real contrast which is the claim that government in functional distress can not maintain and develop a regulatory framework that keeps up with a world of driverless cars, airbnb, ride-sharing, etc. “Governing smarter” is his proxy for functional federal government. “Learning faster” is silly because if some humans make technological advances, those same humans can help other humans understand what they have achieved at least well enough to regulate as needed. If we are graphing human adaptability and technology advances on the same chart, it would be nice to know the units for the Y-axis. And if the point is to depict increasing pain over time due to dysfunctional government, a graph showing units of pain would better make the point. That said, he seems to be channeling Ian Bremmer and trying to come up with his own version of the J-Curve.

  7. Hernan Bruno says:

    Some graphs are conceptual, not necessarily quantitative. Friedman’s graph is not great, or perhaps not even good. But I don’t think he is trying to convey quantitative information but rather to make a point about different rates of change on some vaguely defined concepts. This is a journalist drawing a picture, not a scientist showing data. So I find the criticism a bit disingenuous, and I am not a Friedman fan.

    The “Percentage” graph is quite bad.

  8. Thank you, Jonathan, for your fascinating comment, including your detour on the Sabbath.

    Hernan, this may be a conceptual graph, but it should still make some sort of sense, which it does not. It seems from the graph that technology is undergoing a jerk; that is, its very acceleration is accelerating. But such technology is the work of humans–so some humans out there must be adapting or at least writing code pretty fast. But what is adaptability, anyway? Is it a definite good, or is there something to be said for the inability to adapt? To an extent, you need *not* to adapt to your surroundings in order to understand them. Maybe the question “How much is our adaptability accelerating?” is the wrong one. But what is adaptability here? I do not know.

    In short, a conceptual graph should mean something.

  9. elin says:

    On top of everything else with that second graph, the weird grammar of the title continues to bug me (and so 1 – this is the percent of slaves and serfs not in the world? Where are they?).

  10. I guess Peter Diamandis didn’t watch The Yes Men (2003)?

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