Bad Visualizations – David McCandless Lets Politics Get In The Way

Well, this makes me sad.

David McCandless runs the fantastic information visualization blog Information is Beautiful. Nearly all of his work is fantastic information visualization (his piece on drug deaths in England is really cool.

He recently created a visual about troops and troop deaths in Afghanistan. One part of the visualization got picked up by Andrew Sullivan. It was a graph on troop levels in Afghanistan and who has contributed the most troops. Mr. McCandless accompanies the chart with the words “That’s a huge amount of hired guns.”

The problem is that McCandless doesn’t source that number. I said to myself “71,700 hired guns? That seems high.” It didn’t pass the smell test.

I looked into the number. Near as I can tell, its basically a huge mistake on McCandless’ part. He didn’t source where he got the “71,700 private security contractors” stat and he didn’t say anything when I tweeted to him to ask where he got it. And he didn’t respond in the comments section of his blog when I asked. So I had to go searching for it.

It looks like the number comes from this Washington Times piece which mentions that there are 71,700 contractors, not all of whom are private security contractors. And yet McCandless not only changes this important data point (HUGE no-no in my book), he goes on to push the point with his “hired guns” comment.

Why would he do such a thing? My guess is that he doesn’t like the war in Afghanistan, so that kind of makes it OK to push a “mercenaries” point of view by lumping all contractors into the “private security” category.

Are you teaching in Kabul? You’re a “hired gun”.

Building a bridge? You’re a “hired gun”.

Flying supplies in? “Hired gun.”

Maintaining a network for the government? “Hired gun.”

Working as a translator? “Hired gun.”

It’s basically a data labeling mistake made worse by an wildly inaccurate (and, frankly, quite stupid) comment.

The reason it’s taken me so long to get to this is because I didn’t want to say anything bad about Mr. McCandless without giving him a chance to explain. It’s obvious to me that he’s not going to. If he does, I’ll post his explanation at the top of this post. But it’s given me new insight into the old saw that a lie is half-way around the world before the truth can get its pants on. Being right and being generous to others is something that takes caution and time.

(By the way, I proceeded to contact Andrew Sullivan and tell him that I thought the information was bogus. He hasn’t responded, but I figure that’s because he’s completely consumed with other correspondence. I optimistically maintain he would correct his post if he had read my note.)


  1. Doug Brooks says:

    Excellent post. These exaggerations have gone on far too long – I’m glad someone is calling them on this!

    Best regards,

    Doug Brooks

  2. Matt says:

    As a blogger that tracks the security contracting industry, I find this use of data to be vulgar. It is also flat out wrong, and to purposely lie through this kind of statistical format, all because of a personal agenda, is equally wrong. Be a man, have some integrity and change it to where it should be Mr. McCandless or take the graphic down. Thanks to Political Math for point this out.

  3. KingShamus says:

    If Excitable Andy Sullivan picked up something I put together and praised it to the heavens, I would figure I must’ve made an error.

    Sullivan is like a reverse fact-checker that way. If he agrees with your work, you’re not doing it right.

  4. billpetti says:

    Great post, I had a similar reaction when I reviewed the viz. He doesn’t provide any breakdown of the security contractor numbers. And even if he was using a euphemism it was deployed poorly given the subject matter.

  5. toes192 says:

    Greetings from sunny Ninilchik, Alaska where we never lie… With the debt ceiling being raised… I think it’s time for you to update and post the “Road Trip” again …
    Maybe link to the visual on ONE TRILLION $$ at…
    Maybe with a few extra trillions representing the national debt …

  6. Liz says:

    If he separates out a separate bubble as “armed,” wouldn’t that mean he’s making a distinction between armed private contractors and other individuals? Is it possible “hired guns” is a general comment regarding all of the troops affiliated with actual nation-states?

  7. politicalmath says:

    I suppose that is possible, but he would have to be pretty bad at English. “Hired guns” is a term used almost exclusively for mercenaries, not soldiers for a nation-state. If he was screwing up the terminology intentionally, then he is communicating poorly in order to stroke his political pride.

    It still wouldn’t explain why he labeled all contractors “private security contractors” when (as I’ve noted) that is a drastic distortion of reality.

  8. We can solve the issue of private security contractors by simply increasing the size of the U.S. armed forces.

    Why don’t we? For the obvious reason that contractors can be hired and fired on short notice, whereas it takes years to recruit, train, and deactivate regular military forces.

    Those on the left who rail against the security contractors rarely seem to acknowledge this, much less try and find a solution.