Adopted public policies affect everyone—They're called public for a reason after all. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of defense policy. On the one hand, money spent on the military means money not spent on healthcare, education, infrastructure, or other important domestic spending priorities. On the other, underspending on defense may jeopardize the security of a nation and its people.
No doubt, data plays a major role in policy formulation—that’s a good thing. However, the way data is manipulated and displayed can lead to contradictory policy proposals. Public opinion is swayed. Political leaders are affected. Wrong policies are adopted. My aim in the following paragraphs is to show how using the wrong metrics—either intentionally or for lack of competence—leads to promoting political agendas rather than inform readers and decision makers about what's going on in the data. To achieve this end, I’ll consider an example taken from Alberto Cairo’s book The Functional Art.
In Chapter 2 of his book, Alberto looks at the infographic shown below and prepared by Folha de São Paulo—Brazil’s main newspaper—as part of a story highlighting Brazil’s new strategic defense plan. The infographic gives an overview of the size of the armed forces, defense budgets and population of countries around Brazil. Alberto—rightly—argues that the infographic fails to show comparisons, rankings and correlations in an efficient way. In Alberto’s own words, he goes on asking: “…
Imagine you’re a concerned Brazilian patriot. Your first impulse will probably be to compare your country with Venezuela and Argentina, Brazil’s main commercial and strategic rivals in the region. See how difficult this operation is? If you want to compare, say, population, you will have to read all the numbers, memorize them, and then organize them in your head. The same thing happens when you try to compare the countries’ defense budgets.”