That Viral Graph About Young People’s Declining Support for Democracy Is Very Misleading

Remember the story last week in The New York Times, showing an alarming drop in support for democracy by young people around the world? I described the accompanying chart as “terrifying”. There’s good news — the Times’s chart was deliberately misleading, to greatly exaggerate the survey result. Erik Voeten, writing for The Washington Post, explains:

The data for the graph are from the fifth wave of the World Values Survey (WVS), which asked people to place themselves on a 10-point scale where 1 meant that living in a democracy is “not at all important” and 10 “absolutely important.”

So where does this graph go wrong? It plots the percentage of people who answer 10, and it treats everyone else the same. The graph treats the people who place themselves at 1 as having the same commitment to democracy as those who answer 9. In reality, almost no one (less than 1 percent) said that democracy is “not at all important.”

The graph below uses the exact same data, but it plots the average scores rather than the percentages who place themselves at the top end of the scale.

Voeten’s accurate chart does show a decline in the average support for democracy by age, but it’s subtle, not dramatic, and shows that young people still believe democracy is important. The New York Times should be ashamed of itself for its original chart.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016