How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information

How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information

By: Alberto Cairo
  • Learn how to decode and use visual information
  • Spot and identify lies and misleading data and charts
  • Contemporary examples ranging from election maps to box office records

Charting Literacy Is Paramount in an Increasingly Data- and Agenda-driven, Society

  • Learn how to decode and use visual information
  • Spot and identify lies and misleading data and charts
  • Contemporary examples ranging from election maps to box office records

Alberto Cairo rightly draws the attention of his readers to the importance of both proper charting and demystifying charts correctly in an increasingly data-driven, partisan society. Literate citizens have to become good at identifying when a picture is not worth a thousand words.

Mr. Cairo is at his most useful when he shares tips with his audience for improving their critical thinking about charts:

  • For a chart to be trustworthy, it must be based on reliable data.
  • Transparency about the sources of data is another sign of trustworthiness.
  • Charts can be a visual argument, but they are rarely sufficient on their own.
  • Charts show only what they show, and therefore we must strife not too read too much into them.
  • Data and charts can foster dialogue, change mind, and even save lives because of their clarity and persuasiveness.
  • We have to expose ourselves to a varied media diet, even if we disagree with some sources.
  • Charts can be instruments for either reasoning or rationalization.
  • We have to assume good faith on the part of the chartists, unless they are hyper-partisan sources of information.
  • We cannot assume ill intentions when haste, sloppiness, or ignorance is the most likely explanation for a bad chart.
  • Corrections to previous errors and imprecisions are another sign of high civic or professional standards.
  • Finally, specific expertise matters. Healthy skepticism can easily go too far and become nihilism.

In summary, good charts widen our imagination and enhance our understanding by providing insights from numbers. Education, attention, ethics, and conversation are our best defenses against chart propagandists and liars.

Serge J. Van Steenkiste

Serge J. Van Steenkiste

New Jersey, USA

More Praises

This is not just a good book, this is an important book

I’m a big fan of Cairo’s work and recommend his two previous books, "The Functional Art" and "The Truthful Art", to people who attend my workshops.

Those books are for people who need to create charts and information graphics.

With "How Chart Lie", Cairo is targeting a much larger audience.


Cairo is concerned at how politicians, advertisers, and the media use charts to bamboozle the public. He desperately wants to stop the spread of misinformation and wants you, the reader, to know BS when you see it. As he writes “we all have the civic duty to avoid spreading charts and stories that may be misleading. We must contribute to a healthier informational environment.”

Cairo is an entertaining and engaging writer and a superb graphic designer. He’s also a very good teacher and those with any degree of curiosity will learn a great deal from him.

Please be assured that the book is not just about how to avoid being duped by charts. There are many uplifting examples where Cairo channels his inner Hans Rosling and shows how much better life can be when we truly see and understand the data.

I’m sorry our education system doesn’t require that people take civics classes anymore, and that this isn’t the primary reading material for those classes. We’d have better citizens.



Cairo review - A perfectly timed book, and an accessible one

Alberto Cairo’s latest seems perfectly timed considering the current state of news, media and politics. The book targets itself more to the average consumer of charts rather than data viz professionals, and to that end it contains a lot of examples from politics starting off with variations on the 2016 presidential voting map. It’s a good example to kick off the discussion as it demonstrates in various ways how charts can deceive.

The rest of the book is broken down into different ways that charts can lie—either intentionally or not—leaving the reader with the ultimate takeaway to be skeptical of everything. The more successful examples are the ones—like the presidential voting maps—that show the same data presented in different ways.

While any data viz pro will recognize a lot of expected topics, there is still some very good in depth coverage of Y-axes, scales, shading, data defining, and omission of data. All covered with accessible and understandable examples—some we’ve seen before and many we haven’t.

As always with the author, the book is thoroughly researched and well-notated with an excellent bibliography.

If there is a criticism, it might be in the production values of the book. Unlike Cairo’s previous works printed in full, glossy color, this is a 2-color production that forces you to focus more on the words really than the charts. Add to this the smaller form factor, and some of the charts printed all in shades of red and black can be a little hard to read at times. Ultimately the mood feels more academic than previous books, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Definitely worth adding to the bookshelf!

N. Haims

New York, NY

Book Details

Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (October 13, 2020)
Language: : English
Paperback : 256 pages
ISBN-10 : 0393358429
ISBN-13 : 978-0393358421
Item Weight : 10.3 ounces
Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
Best Sellers Rank : #46,338 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
#56 in Research Reference Books
#82 in Business Statistics
#159 in Statistics (Books)

About the Author

Alberto Cairo


Alberto Cairo is the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the University of Miami (UM), and director of the visualization program of UM’s Center for Computational Science. He teaches courses on visualization and infographics for effective communication. He also works as an independent data visualization consultant for companies such as Google and Microsoft.

Cairo’s latest book is “How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information”, published by W.W. Norton in October 2019. Previously he wrote “The Functional Art: an Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization” (Peachpit Press, 2012), and “The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication” (Peachpit Press, 2016)

Cairo has taught in more than 30 countries in the past 20 years, and has extensive experience as a manager of visualization and infographics teams in news organizations in Spain, Brazil, and the United States.

Cairo’s website is and his Twitter handle is @albertocairo

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