All that glitters is not Silver

“Love is blind.”

So begins a teasing article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, by Nate Silver, the current wunderkind of popular statistics.  “Popular statistics,” now that I think about it, is almost the definition of an oxymoron, and it is to Nate’s credit that he has made it possible to utter such a phrase without puzzlement. The gist of the article is that in the dating game you are more likely to get lucky on a wednesday night than on any other night of the week. The article is accompanied by a massive “infographic” that occupies more than half of a page.

Debate has raged over the years about “decoration” of graphs, and while I am obviously  firmly in the minimalist camp, I am not a wild-eyed fundamentalist. A little furbelow here and there is harmless, provided that it does not obscure or distort the data.

Regrettably, young Nate has been kidnapped by the graphic artistes at the Times, who have never met a graph that could not be obscured or distorted. Witness below their artsy creation.

Note that there is an overall graph, for the days of the week, and within each day, a graph for hours of the evening. From a visual point of view, the most prominent effect is the trend over days. What exactly is plotted by this larger graph, for days of the week? A little scrutiny will reveal that it plots: nothing! The top of each bar is offset from the actual data, for any hour, by bizarrely random amounts. This is not decoration, it is desecration.

But suppose we extract the data, and plot them correctly. For days of the week, which is the primary focus of the article, it might be sensible to take the average “score” over the evening hours, and plot that. If we do so, we get the graph below.

Wow! No wonder they call it hump-day! Look at that massive effect! Except of course, that a glance at the scale reveals that the needle, so to speak, has barely budged. A more correct rendition of the data, showing the variation as a fraction of the total score (a ratio scale), is shown below.

Umm…never mind.  For all practical purposes, every night is the same. The main point of the article is, how shall we put it, nonsense.

And what about the numbers for the different hours of the evening? Even though they are hard to see, at least they are big effects, right? Of course not. Here is the average score for the various hours of the evening, plotted on a ratio scale.

I don’t want to be Miss Grundy, and I know even serious statistics wonks need a night out every once in a while, but even if “love is blind,” Nate really ought to reconsider the artsy types he hangs out with. Whichever night it was, he didn’t get lucky.

New York Times MAGAZINE

Wednesday Night Is All Right for Loving


Published: June 3, 2011

Approaching the singles scene statistically.

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