This is not how the y-axis is supposed to work

The National Review still considers itself the publication for America’s Intellectual Conservatives™, but if they hope to keep that brand association for much longer they should figure out how the y-axis works.

This isn’t it:

That chart, which (with good reason) doesn’t actually appear in the post the tweet links to, plots the global average temperature over the last 135 years. The y-axis runs from -10°F to 110°F because adventures in Microsoft Excel are fun, I guess?

Also, it’s worth pointing out that even though the range is zoomed out to 50x the observed fluctuation (roughly 2°F), the line still has a slight positive slope. Even the National Review’s deliberate attempt to manipulate data to dismiss a the fact that global temperatures are increasing demonstrates the fact that global temperatures are increasing.

Suffice it to say that there are many climate change (excuse me, #climatechange) charts that you do need to see, and this isn’t one of them. Instead, you really should take a look at how NOAA represents the same data:

[iframe src=”http://www1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/cmb/images/indicators/global-temp-and-co2-1880-2009.gif”]

Notice how the y-axis reflects the relevant range: about two degrees. It may not make a difference in determining whether you put on a jacket before going outside, but it likely will make a difference in determining whether you’ll still be able to make garbage charts in Boston 100 years from now.

You can play the National Review’s game with the y-axis of any chart to make big changes seem small. You can say the difference in the amount of time it takes to driving across the country as opposed to flying is negligible because walking would take way longer than both. You can say that your house and Trump Tower weigh about the same because the moon is heavier than both. Or, as Bloomberg Businessweek showed in response to the National Review’s chart, you can say that a century and change isn’t actually that much time because a millennium is way longer:

Of course, when it comes to measuring something like climate change, that last point actually matters — albeit not as much as the fact that temperatures only need to rise about 2°C in order to produce civilization-altering effects on our climate.

You can rationalize that fact all you want, putting it in as distorted of a perspective as you want, but it doesn’t make the fact go away.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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4 Responses to “This is not how the y-axis is supposed to work”

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  2. rwlorenz says:

    Deniers have reached their conclusions; all graphs are superfluous.

  3. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    Those SOOPER JEENUSES at NR didn’t think to plot the global temperatures in Rankine, (like absolute K, but in Fahrenheit) for which we can be grateful. But it was almost certainly a result of ignorance, rather than honesty.

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