Disproportionate Risk

Here’s another graphic from those folks at Catalogtree, published a while ago in the New York Times Magazine, in an article on the influence Shia Islam is likely to have on Middle East elections. So where are all the Shiites then?


If you said Iran and Bahrain, you are so, so wrong. Pakistan actually has 60 times as many Shiites as Bahrain, a tiny country with far fewer Shiites than Iraq. What the graphic is showing is percentages, not numbers; percentages of a total population we’re not told. The designers probably decided that percentages were most important when you’re discussing elections, but the convention in these types of graphics is that each little person stands for an actual amount (say, a million people), rather than 1%.

If we go the the Foreign Affairs article cited, we find the following data.


Note that Catalogtree chose just a few of these countries to graph; Bahrain rather than, say, Afghanistan or Syria. Why? Well, it rather looks like they read no further than paragraph 2 of the multi-page article (their choices are the bold ones):

“Shiites account for about 90 percent of Iranians, some 70 percent of the people living in the Persian Gulf region, and approximately 50 percent of those in the arc from Lebanon to Pakistan — some 140 million people in all.… Recent events in Iraq have already mobilized the Shiites of Saudi Arabia(about 10 percent of the population); during the 2005 Saudi municipal elections, turnout in Shiite-dominated regions was twice as high as it was elsewhere. … The Shiites of Lebanon (who amount to about 45 percent of the country’s population) have touted the formula, as have the Shiites in Bahrain(who represent about 75 percent of the population there), who will cast their ballots in parliamentary elections in the fall.”

The main problem with including all the countries in the table is obvious when you graph it: India dwarfs everybody else. In other circumstances, one might log-transform the x axis, but that’s just silly when you’re trying to compare numbers and percentages.


One solution, and it’s the one used in the Foreign Affairs article, is to indicate percentages on a map rather than on a bar graph. The size of countries is very roughly proportional to their population anyway, and by cropping the map one keeps India from dominating it.


This map has a few problems, though. Because it uses no colors, it relies on rather odd patterns to convey the percentage of Shiites. It’s also a bit of a tangle of coastlines, borders, and pointers. I tried a redesign with a more intuitive color palette, scaling back boundaries as much as possible. Of course you’d want to label countries as well.


We still don’t know the actual numbers of Shiites, though. That could be done by overlaying little person-markers proportional to numbers, the way the Catalogtree graph seemed to be doing but wasn’t. I intentionally didn’t arrange the Shiites in serried ranks, like an army on a parade ground presumably about to march on the effete West.


Of course, it ends up looking like a certain board game. But I guess when you want to show hordes of figures camped on countries, you just have to run that Risk.


Reference: Vali Nasr, When the Shiites Rise, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2006