The Plot Thins


When I started college, an academic advisor convinced me to take a difficult statistics class. I don’t know what on my transcript made him think that was a good idea, but I suspect it was my frantic need to avoid math courses at all costs. That might seem counterintuitive, but this particular statistics class fulfilled two math-related requirements at my school, so it was like ripping off a bandaid—a painful, useless bandaid. I signed up because, as a public school student, I was used to taking classes that were ill-fitted to my abilities and goals.

Weirdly, this turned out to be a big mistake. I was completely uninterested in statistics (duh) and refused to dedicate any of my brainpower to something that a computer program could do for me. I learned two things in that course. First, don’t waste your time on nonsense. Second, the greatest graph of all time is the scattergraph. (Note: Until this very moment, I thought it was called a scattograph, so maybe I didn’t even learn two things.)

For those of you who aren’t statistical experts, a scattergraph is one where you plot data points wherever they fall, without any required pre-graphing analysis. All you do is choose the x and y axis and put in the data and see how it lands. The beauty of a scattergraph is that you don’t need to worry about strange outliers or a weird range. You just throw it all up there and see what happens. The random dot in the corner can just sit there on its own and you don’t need to bother with it. It was my kind of analysis.

In life, we’re sometimes stuck with weird, random data points. Faced with one in another statistical analysis, you might be forced to ignore it completely, put it aside as a footnote, or change your conclusion. With a scattergraph, you just leave it there with the rest of those dots. You don’t have to pretend you never got that horrible haircut as a 12 year old, you can just see it alongside all the really great ones you’ve gotten since then. These graphs let you view your decision-making trajectory on a general incline, despite a few bad vodka-filled nights. They are holistic and forgiving.

That is what I tried to tell my statistics professor when I turned in an assignment filled with only scattergraphs. Surprise—I barely passed, benefitting from a very generous curve. It probably didn’t help that I called them scattographs every time, like I was plotting animal droppings or improvised jazz mumblings.

Leave a comment. Just try it. It will be fun, I swear.