Currently viewing the category: "Academic life"

A Friedman alum recently sent me a draft plan for how to fix the broken U.S. food system, wondering what I thought of it. That prompted a long response which I’ll share with you here.

If you’re in a hurry — tl, dr: The real culprit behind our food woes is systemic political and market failure, and the best way forward is smart regulation aimed at structural change, alongside individual responsibility for what we say and do every day. That lesson follows from the exemplary work of the Movement for Black Lives and so many other youth-led efforts that we might call Gen C activism. The discussion below is not specifically about Black Lives, or about climate activism, but is what I’ve learned from those movements about social change.

Now, the long version:

Any effort to “fix our broken food system” starts with a diagnosis of the problem, observing the many ways that existing institutions harm workers, worsen health and degrade our environment. The draft reform plan I was sent attributes our many woes in agriculture and nutrition to the most visible actors involved, namely the highly specialized agribusinesses and large-scale corporations that supply most grocery stores and restaurant meals. Based on this observation, the plan endorses a widely shared vision of more localized production, whereby each place becomes more self-reliant and resilient through self-provisioning.

Is food sovereignty’s focus on localism the way forward for our food system? Or is the effort to build shorter, locally-controlled supply chains likely to leave other structural problems unchecked? In my view, blaming specialization and trade for our problems is mostly a distraction, and local self-provision is fine as far it goes but that’s not very far. Like other social movements today, we can go look more deeply at the underlying causes of what we see. The food system experiences a variety of political and market failures, the remedies for which include smart regulation aimed at structural change accompanied by individual responsibility for personal choices. That diagnosis comes from academic research in agricultural and food economics, but its societal and policy implementation is heavily influenced by the Movement for Black Lives and responses to climate change and COVID.

In this view, food-specific instruments like package and menu labeling, school meals, dietary guidelines, fruit and vegetable vouchers as well as soda taxes and nutrition education can all be extremely helpful — especially big programs like SNAP and WIC — but more durable solutions for the whole population come from recognizing that our food system is not just crops, livestock and home cooking: it’s a giant manufacturing and service industry and should be treated as such, with the same kind of regulatory attention that governs transportation, housing, health care and other sectors.

…and now, the really long version:

To start, some context and motivation: Over the past few years, the Movement for Black Lives and young people’s activism around school shootings, climate change and now Covid-19, which I’ll call Generation C, have profoundly altered how I think and talk about food systems. There are threads of continuity but also novelty, unpeeling layers of structural conditions and personal experiences that shape language and understanding. My own life has been propelled by countless privileges, thanks to how my family became white in America. In my view now, Black Lives and Gen C point the way to positive change in three distinct ways:

  • First, who’s in charge: older people like me (next birthday is #60, same as Barack Obama) should soon step back and let younger people run things. There is a big need for the wisdom of elders, but my own role is mainly to help Tufts grads go out and do the work.
  • Second, structural change. Both the Movement for Black Lives and much of Gen C activism is explicitly anti-capitalist, especially regarding corporate control of government. The system they oppose is what economists call crony capitalism, where legislators and judges and agencies serve the owners of existing businesses instead of newcomers, customers and workers.
  • Third, individual behavior. Social science teaches us how large-scale long-term forces reflect and shape our small everyday actions. To shift the whole, each of us has a responsibility to signal our intentions, aligning what we say and do with our social goals. I am a proud member of the Heterodox Academy, and am well aware that overzealous speech police can lead to firing the innocent and self-indulgent guilt, but change starts and ends with personal responsibility for what we do in our professional and personal lives.

For the food system in particular, my perspective comes from working on farms as a kid, then surveying hundreds of farm families in grad school, analyzing terabytes of other data in countless ways and about 40 years of reading everything I can about agriculture, food and nutrition. Most of what I know is academic economics, the kind of social science that I teach in NUTR 238, but I also read a lot in the natural and health sciences.

From all that data and experience, one simple thing we’ve learned about the food system is that supply chains deliver what you put into them. Specialization and long-distance trade can bring good things, like year-round vegetables and rewarding jobs, and they can also do many bad things. For innovation and investment to deliver more of what we want, companies need a regulatory environment and price signals to move in that direction. Most of my adult life has been lived in the Reagan-Bush-Trump era of deregulation and corporate influence in government, but we could soon enter a new era of collective action and personal responsibility.

Fixing the food system in a climate-smart, post-COVID era where Black Lives Matter could involve the Federal government, but only if the U.S. as a whole has a sufficiently large wave election to shift control of the Senate as well as the White House. If that doesn’t happen, the Federal government will remain part of the problem rather than the solution, and steps forward will be taken only by state and local government in progressive places, and by individual consumers, farmers and companies everywhere who choose to align their private behavior with their social goals.

In economics as in medicine, successful interventions start with correct diagnoses and specific remedies, aiming to limit solve problems effectively with few side effects. The way COVID hit the food system, for example, includes illness among meatpackers and migrant farmworkers (migrant meaning that they move from farm to farm). Outbreaks at big companies got the headlines, but the virus itself spreads wherever it can. The astonishing COVID map from Leah Douglas at FERN reveals that, as in nursing homes and other workplaces, big groups are more likely to have cases but may actually be safer on a per-capita basis if the space is managed well. Replacing one 2,000-worker plant with ten 200-employee facilities or a hundred 20-person sites could be better, worse or the same for their communities, depending on how workers are treated.

Even where the illness itself is controlled, COVID has killed jobs for millions of low income workers, and forced a sudden shift to groceries for food at home. Did having a highly specialized food system with long supply chains make us more vulnerable to COVID, or less? The transition from restaurant supply to retail sale did involve a lot of spilled milk and spoiled vegetables, but was about the same problem as switching toilet paper from office to home use.  In any case the resilience of supply chains is no consolation to the millions of food workers who lost their jobs, disproportionately Black and brown and low-income people with limited education, but their job loss is a different problem than supply disruption – and the solution to food-system unemployment is not to have all those restaurant kitchen workers become local farmers, since there is not nearly enough capital or land to go around.

At last, we get to the conclusion of this essay:  If our food system woes aren’t caused by the big specialized companies involved, what is it that caused our many problems in agriculture, food and nutrition?

For that I’d say: The systemic failures behind our food woes are regulatory in nature. We are trying to manage agriculture and nutrition using institutions like the USDA and FDA that are over a hundred years old, and our debates focus on Farm Bill measures, tax/subsidy instruments and programs that help some people while leaving structural problems unchecked. Food-specific instruments like SNAP and WIC as well as package and menu labeling, school meals, dietary guidelines, soda taxes and nutrition education can be shown to help, but the most durable large-scale solutions for everyone come from recognizing that our food system is fundamentally like other manufacturing and service industries and should be treated as such. Most importantly:

  1. For heathy diets, we need to treat nutrition and food safety the same way we’ve gotten safer electrical appliances, buildings and transportation. What’s sold at grocery stores and restaurants should be governed the same way we govern what’s at hardware stores, auto dealerships and apartment buildings, ensuring that consumers have choice among options whose safety and functionality is enforced by law.
  2. For decent jobs, we need to help food service and farmworkers the same way we’ve improved employment conditions elsewhere, with minimum wages and collective bargaining and labor protections that treat every worker with dignity and respect.
  3. For environmental quality, we should treat water and farmland the same way we treat resources in other sectors, with direct regulation of pollutants and other external harms; as with housing, the goal should be more farming rather than less, adopting new practices that reduce the overall footprint of the whole system.
  4. For plant and animal life, we should treat antibiotics and pesticides the same way we should treat other public health concerns, with a focus on harm reduction from misuse.
  5. For monopoly power, we need the same anti-trust enforcement to promote competition, entry of entrepreneurs and survival of small businesses as in other sectors.

The pattern here should be clear: all too often, we still think of food as it comes out of the ground, to be managed with 1930s-era policy instruments.  One we see food as a modern manufacturing and service sector like any other, where agriculture produces ingredients and food companies make food, then we recognize the opportunity for a lot of helpful regulation.  That may seem like an anti-market view, but it’s straight from the modern ‘neoliberal’ playbook of policing the marketplace to be a level playing field so it can attract as much activity as possible, to be pro-farmer and pro-business in a way that promotes public health and long-term resilience.

To conclude… this is a teaching blog, aimed at supporting NUTR 238: Economics for Food and Nutrition Policy. The purpose of that course, and of academic economics in general, is to help people identify and meet our societal goals. These goals include all peoples’ dignity and living standards, human health and the environment as well as “the economy” in the sense of market activity. Like all of economics, our goal is to identify both market failures and policy failures, and help people solve both with the appropriate instruments. In the U.S. food system, the most under-used part of the policy toolkit is regulation, due to decades of anti-regulatory fever that came to power with Ronald Reagan in 1980. The era of electing leaders who dislike government may finally be coming to an end. If America does have a sufficiently strong wave election in 2020, the U.S. and the world could begin using a more complete armory of policy instruments to improve the food system and so much else — with hundreds of Friedman School graduates on the front lines of change.

 

Today I did a CELT workshop on what I’ve learned about online teaching at Friedman so far, in a series for faculty to share experiences and lessons learned for the coming year. We had 49 participants from all parts of the university. By coincidence, that’s the same size as my Spring class, so we were able to practice the same engagement tools as I used with students last semester. Here’s a quick summary:

The story begins with my pre-COVID teaching methods. I’ve now taught introductory classes on food economics for about 30 years in various settings, the main lesson from which has been the astonishing power of a traditional lecture. I have seen a few great teachers in my life. A skillful lecture is a magical thing, and I try my best every time. The background slides below illustrate some aspects of how I ran the class until COVID arrived.

For remote teaching, my main adaptation has been to sharply reduce time devoted to verbal Q&A during the lecture, and replace it with Zoom tools that elicit much more frequent participation from everyone each day.

The first kind of active learning that we do more often with Zoom is through clicks on instant polls, some prepared ahead of time using PollEverywhere or Zoom’s own multiple-choice questions, but also a lot of planned or improvised Yes/No questions. Some of my yes/no questions are about peoples’ backgrounds and situations (e.g. “have you ever worked on a farm?”) but most are about class content (e.g. “has total calorie consumption per person in the U.S. risen over the past decade?”). .

My yes/no questions about students’ backgrounds and interests are primarily to ensure that the students and me all know where we’re coming from, and that all students feel recognized as valued members of the class. The purpose of the factual questions is for students to practice making errors and fixing them. Many smart people find mistakes so unpleasant that they don’t learn very much. The factual yes/no questions give every student a safe way to practice being wrong, and fixing their mistakes with speed and self-confidence.

Formulating questions so they have yes/no answers can be tricky. I wish Zoom offered a third option, and some faculty use the open hand to mean ‘don’t know’ or some other choice. For maximum flexibility, however, the huge new kind of active learning that Zoom allows is use of the chat box. The slide below explains what I’ve learned about texting in class. During the CELT workshop, faculty participants filled the chat box with great ideas and suggestions from which I learned a lot — demonstrating that faculty, just like students, can type way more than they can say.

The third new active-learning technique allowed by Zoom that we discussed in the workshop is quick formation of small breakout groups For example, with just a few clicks I can divide the class into random pairs or trios, and give them a few minutes to develop a list of examples or possible solutions to a problem. I think it’s particularly helpful to have breakout group participants all type something in the chat box afterwards, instead of having just one rapporteur summarize what everyone said.

My conclusions for the CELT workshop are summarized in the slide below. We’ll be talking about these ideas a lot over the coming months, and I expect to learn a lot more next year about what really works best.

 

Many organizations have stepped up with amazing resources on COVID-19 impacts and responses around the world. Here’s a set of links I’ve found helpful that might be of use for students, faculty and staff around the Friedman School of Nutrition or in related groups. Categories shown are in rough order of urgency and relevance for us, especially regarding impacts and responses in agriculture and the food system. Please comment or email to me any additions or updates.

1. Boston-area volunteering
— Public health students supporting local public health agencies
— Health science students supporting medical staff at BMC & HMS
— Neighbor-to-neighbor mutual aid compiled by Boston Public Library

2. The basics
— Our indispensable U.S. CDC & Massachusetts Dept of Public Health
— Announcements and info for Tufts University & the Friedman School
–Covid-related nutrition advice from dieticians in the US and UK

3. Data on impacts and responses
–Epidemiological forecasts
– for the U.S. and individual states, from IHME
– for the U.S., UK and Europe, from Imperial College MRC
–Global monitoring from Our World in Data
–Daily situation reports from the WHO
–Africa-specific info from Amref, AfricaCDC, and WHO-Africa

4. Agriculture, food and nutrition
–UN Standing Committee on Nutrition list of resources
–UN system agency responses from FAO, WFP & UNICEF
–Research from the Center for Global Development & IFPRI
–Global impacts on school meals: https://gcnf.org/covid

5. Analyses and writing of special interest (to me)
— IRI on consumers’ response in terms of food purchases
— Eater’s data on impacts for US restaurants
— IEG Vu on food system in Italy (+ useful weekly agribusiness briefing)
— Gro Intelligence ag data analyses: https://app.gro-intelligence.com/signup
— Economists estimating the payoff from social (physical) distancing

6. The great migration to online learning
— AAUP on Coronavirus impacts & response in higher education
— Michael Bruening’s version of I will survive (>2 million views!)

5. A daily general news source that won’t drive you crazy
— Website and newsletters from Axios (“smart brevity”)

 

Aging as gracefully as I can… looking back about ten years, here’s a repost of food economics in doggerel:
http://freakonomics.com/2009/06/04/why-are-kiwis-so-cheap
and also a link to my farewell to Purdue grad students when I moved to Tufts:
http://freakonomics.com/2010/06/10/toward-an-ethical-economics-of-food-policy

 

This year, my back-to-school week included a lecture for the University of California’s Network on Child Health, Poverty and Public Policy, which had a 3-day multidisciplinary talkfest for UC researchers to share insights about the many different methods and kinds of data used to study child well-being. The organizers asked me to do a one-hour session on what economists can learn from nutritionists, focusing on global undernutrition and the dietary transition. This seemed like a good opportunity to try flying less, so thank you to Marianne Bitler and Tim Beatty for the invitation, and willingness to experiment with an online talk and Q&A.
Participants were grad students, postdocs and faculty from various fields across the UC system. Marianne and Tim asked me to share whatever I thought would be most helpful, so I talked about three things:
Vocabulary, and some of the many language barriers that make it difficult for economists and nutritionists to learn from each other;
Nutrition, and what’s been discovered about food that could help us understand global undernutrition and the dietary transition to improve health in the U.S. and elsewhere; and
Economics, especially what’s known about agriculture and the food industry to help improve diet quality.

The resulting 59 minutes of presentation and Q&A is below, recorded from the classroom system. Comments welcome, easiest by email, and you can also download the slides here.

EconoNutrition: Using economics and nutrition to address global undernutrition and the dietary transition from William A. Masters on Vimeo.

 

For Tufts and other schools in Massachusetts, today’s start of the academic year coincides with a primary election for state and federal offices. The campaigns have made some effort at persuasion but most focus is on mobilization:  recent elections have been decided mainly by turnout, by which people invest the time and effort needed to vote.  This morning I’ll walk to my polling place before going in to the office but most Americans don’t have that luxury. Differences in turnout arise precisely because people face very different barriers to voting, which itself is one of the most important questions in American politics.

Starting the school year with an election seems fitting.  I teach at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, where much of the agenda concerns what governments do.  And in education, like politics, enthusiasm matters. It takes effort to get involved — so thank you for showing up, at Tufts or other schools.  And if you’re lucky enough to have elections this academic year, thank you for voting.

 
Research in nutrition and the health sciences is often kept semi-secret until publication.  Why?  Does it matter?
     Scientists in many fields circulate their work in progress as widely as possible, hoping for feedback and citation even before submission to a journal.  Institutions run their own working paper series (like the Tufts economics department), individuals use their own websites (like my personal site), and many use general repositories (like arXiv and SSRN).  Acceptance at a top journal certifies the quality of the final version and facilitates dissemination, but draft work in the physical and social sciences is typically circulated as widely as possible before publication.
     In nutrition and health research, the default rule is secrecy.  Results are typically kept confidential until publication, even for work that will be eventually be published on an open-access basis.  Study designs for human subjects research is disclosed through registries like clinicaltrials.gov, and ongoing work may be described at conferences from which brief abstracts are published in outlets like the FASEB supplements, but detailed methods and results are not generally shared until publication day.
     The difference between fields is nicely illustrated by a twitter thread reproduced in this post, in which I experimented with sharing a photo album from an agricultural economics conference so as to see connections between different presentations.  That led to quick reply from a leading nutrition researcher, Purnima Menon, who noted that posting photos of slides could jeopardize publication in top health journals.
     A specific example of how nutrition research is kept hidden until publication comes from a recent conference that I organized at Tufts, called GlobalFood+.  This event was designed around 7-minute speed talks designed for sharing on the internet — but one of the best talks had to be kept off our website.
     Confidentiality of work in progress can be important to prevent theft of ideas, to ensure that scientists receive credit for what they do.  Limiting prior publication might also be important for subscription-based journals, to ensure that institutional libraries want that journal in their collection.  But neither rationale applies when working papers can be cited, and when publication fees are paid for open-access articles.
     In general, the primary reason to discourage prior sharing is to pursue media coverage.  Journal publishers make this clear, as in the statements against ‘pre-publicity’ at the top general outlets, Nature and Science.  Previous posting is especially discouraged in the top medical journals, as explained by JAMA and NEJM.  They encourage publication of teaser abstracts, like a movie trailer, but detailed results are subject to a media embargo until publication day.  Universities and research labs are keen to cooperate, in the hope that science journalists will treat the paper’s arrival as a newsworthy event.
     Embargoes may be needed in some case, but for most studies the scientific community is turning against pre-publication secrecy.  Treating publication as a news event is itself a problem, contributing to ‘study-a-day’ media coverage that exaggerates the importance of new studies relative to previous knowledge.  And limiting prior scrutiny to a handful of referees and editors raises the risk of error.  Policies favoring prior circulation of working papers were adopted long ago in PNAS, and have recently been adopted in the health sciences at BMJ and The Lancet.  In nutrition, the AJCN and Journal of Nutrition still put some limits on prior circulation, discouraging their use.
     Why would different kinds of journals have different policies?  One factor could be audience demand for different kinds of news.  Many people want to know about the latest findings in nutrition and medicine, so media outlets often assign reporters to meet that need.  Universities are happy to supply a curated flow of individual studies in the specific fields that reporters most want to write about, like dietary advice and lifestyle choices.  Managing the flow of news is also important for high-stakes pharmaceutical trials and other controversial studies.  But in many cases, secrecy before publication is sought mainly to protect the economic interests of the publisher.  With JAMA, NEJM and some others, subscriptions are still important so they must restrict prior publication to enforce a paywall.  And some journals like Science and Nature run scientific articles alongside weekly news about science, with significant revenue from ads for lab equipment and materials. These journals need publicity to attract traffic for their journal as a news source, to sell both subscriptions and advertising.
      Scientific work is changing fast and it’s hard to keep up.  For example, my previous foodecon post was about how to limit the plague of academic spam.  Much is being written about the business of scientific publication, including great nonprofit work by Scholarly Kitchen and the EmbargoWatch blog by Ivan Oransky (who also blogs at RetractionWatch), as well as superb reporting on academic life by insidehighered.com and chronicle.com.  Personally, I hope that the tradition of pre-publication secrecy is soon replaced by wider circulation of working papers, even in nutrition and the health sciences.  Sharing work in progress would raise overall quality, and help break reporters’ study-a-day habit and encourage them to cover the overall flow of knowledge.  Wouldn’t that be nice?
 

Academic spam is a real problem.  Every day I get many emails inviting me to fake conferences and pretend journals.  This junk mail is clever enough to pass through automated filters, and to fool just enough students and researchers into paying for their useless services — or tempt them into trying to fool employers with a puffed-up CV.

It takes time and attention to distinguish fake from real.  Much has been written about the problem.  The pioneer effort is Beall’s list, followed by other efforts to stop predatory journals and help people choose better outlets. The pay-to-publish and pay-to-attend industry even puts out their own guide to using their services, encouraging people to think and check before submitting.  Some academics are really into this, with fun blogs about flaky conferences and flaky journals, or this fancy Christmas joke.

This year I started building my own blocked senders list of sites that have sent me academic spam.  It’s pretty easy:  instead of deleting the junk, I add the sender to my blocked list.  This takes a couple more clicks, and I’ve ended up with a list that looks like this:

My list of about 400 senders now catches about two-thirds of the incoming spam, sending it directly to the junk folder.  The filtered ones are in bold, unread, in case you want to check what was blocked:

I did this partly for myself, but also to share the list online so others could import and add to it, here:  http://bit.ly/academicspammers.

With a little crowdsourcing, we could all enjoy a less spammy future.

 

It’s the first weekend of a new semester – time to take stock and set direction for the spring.  As Anne of Green Gables put it: ‘a new day, with no mistakes in it yet’.

With that… time for what might might be my first mistake:  an overly long blog post.  In the past I’ve used this site to post short roundups of great new stuff from the internet, with links to some of the best ideas that feel new to me for the start of each semester.  Topics have included filter bubbles, redefining sustainability, song lyrics, ethical economics, teaching economics, and data visualization.  My goal is share ways to avoid previous errors, so when I do make mistakes at least they’ll be new ones.

In 2017, the whiplash transition from Obama to Trump has shaken every aspect of American life, down to the root of rethinking how we talk about race, gender and other aspects of who we are.  That calls for many things, including perhaps the need to address those issues more directly in this kind of blog.  Taking on something so fundamental as social identity means my mistakes could be bigger and more consequential than usual, but I hope they are not quite the same old errors as in the past.

For NUTR 238, our focus is how economics can help improve the food system.  Economic analysis starts with individuals’ choices, and there is now a lot of economics about how we form and use various identities.  What sort of person do we want to become?  How do we categorize other people?  Identities like being a vegan or an environmentalist play huge roles in our food choices, and could even cause bias in nutrition research.

Many features of social identity are inherited, and change only gradually.  My own family name was changed completely by my great-grandfather on arrival in Boston.  My father’s parents changed it again, to sound even more English.  Identity evolves in part through choices like that – and yes, there are economics studies of this, both family names and first names.

Each of us has many interacting identities, of which some aspects are private and others can be used as a public signal.  Many signals involve things we say, including what we say about race and gender.  A meta demonstration of this is one of my favorite signs from the women’s march of January 2017: If it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism.  That sign says a lot, including:  I am a person who uses the word ‘intersectional.

By definition, the meaning of a social identity is what other people make of it – especially distant people, who don’t know the real you.  As the old joke has it, a loving parent might say their kid in a new uniform, “To me of course you’re a real captain, but… to a captain are you a captain”?  We can alter our own social identity through our names, our language and clothing – and we can also contribute to how others’ traits are interpreted, including immutable traits like skin color.

Regarding racial identity, as a white professor in a largely white school, my own change of perspective begins with Seeing White.  It’s a long-form podcast, 14 episodes each of which runs for 30-45 minutes.  New listeners might start with the last episode on transformation that includes a lot of solid economics.  Agriculture and nutrition are mentioned only in passing, but the question of food justice does appear; in that last episode Robin DiAngelo describes her own initial self-perception as “of course I’m not racist — I’m a vegetarian!” As an aside, this series with a nice personal connection to our field because the co-host’s mother is a prominent nutrition professor.

Regarding gender dynamics, my job is a lot easier.  The Friedman School’s student population is about 85% female, and the faculty about 65% female.  There are plenty of problems in the field of nutrition, but teaching at Friedman is an escape from so much more sexism in economics.  In NUTR 238 we already devote a lot of class time to gender as a topic, and on all topics I feature the work of many great female economists so students will know it’s not all men.  I also try to manage classroom dynamics in a way that will help students express their own point of view.  I rarely call on anyone until they raise their hand, to encourage self-motivation, and gender disparity in classroom participation runs so deep that by week 3 or 4 there’s inevitably a moment when raised hands are almost all male.  That’s what we call a teachable moment:  I can stop the class to ask why – and point out that everyone else needs to speak up for their own perspective to heard.

Most importantly for our work at the Friedman School, thinking about diversity and inclusion includes discovering the unintended consequences of our own identities within the food system.  The big change in the NUTR 238 curriculum for 2018 will be on that front.  I will try to do even more than in the past regarding racial, gender and other disparities in the food system, but what I’ll add for the first time is the possibility of unintended harms from identities over which we have more choice: for example, that ‘healthism’ might worsen weight discrimination, or how the food movement affects the urban-rural divide.

When talking about identity and its consequences, we’ll surely make mistakes – but if we learn from each other we can make some real progress.  On to a new semester!

 

A big part of economics is data analysis, which starts with data visualization:  “seeing like an economist” means looking for patterns across many observations, recognizing that the data we see result from peoples’ choices.  In class we practice this through weekly exercises and a course project that start with analytical diagrams (such as supply and demand curves) to show the logic by which we explain each observation, and then download data from authoritative sources to make our own charts and tables that summarize what’s been observed.

This blog post pulls together a few suggestions and links about data visualization for convenient reference.  The dataverse of available information is expanding rapidly, with increasingly sophisticated expectations about data visualization.  That complexity can be daunting, making it hard to get started. My vote for best quick advice about data is to keep it simple, as explained in great posts about how to clear off the table and remove to improve.  Those start with bad examples and show how to clean things up and avoid numbo-jumbo.

Successful data visualizations help you tell a story, by making comparisons that highlight both similarities and differences.  Charts and tables offer a kind of language designed to help us communicate clearly.  The grammar of this language is nicely explained here: http://abacus.bates.edu/~ganderso/biology/resources/writing/HTWtablefigs.html.  Change over time is usually best shown with line graphs like Figure 1 of that page, while differences among categories is usually best shown with bar charts that are sorted by magnitude, and a cloud of individual observations is best shown by a scatter plot.  It’s useful and fun just to browse through the different charts presented here: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery.aspx, and also click through https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/data-visualizations.  Other thoughtful guides to making scientific charts and tables include: http://guides.library.duke.edu/datavis/topten and https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/gsspolicy/effective-graphs-and-tables-in-official-statistics.

Your final reports and presentations weave together a sequence of charts and tables.  To keep things straight, all figures (whether an analytical diagram or a chart of data) should be numbered consecutively as Figure 1, 2, 3…, and all tables should be numbered separately as Table 1, 2, 3…  Each should have a clear title and note describing the nature and source of all data shown in the chart or table, so that a future reader could replicate or update your visualization in the future.  Different fields use different conventions about table or figure titles and footnotes, and have preferred visual styles for how things are presented.  In general, economics and other social sciences use brief titles above the chart and detailed notes below it, while many health science readers expect a single long figure caption that combines both kinds of information.  Examples from my own recent papers include one in health economics style (title and footnote), and one in health-science style (a long caption)

For oral presentation, your charts and tables should appear in ways that help you tell the story.  There are many good guides to using PowerPoint effectively, of which one of my favorites is from a prominent biologist named Susan McConnell: https://www.ibiology.org/professional-development/designing-effective-scientific-presentations.

And finally, if you’re interested in guides to writing in general, my favorite is Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style — especially for his brilliant description of how all communication requires effort to overcome the curse of knowledge, in part by chunking information into digestible units which you can then bundle up into increasingly powerful stories.  I look forward to seeing how you put your pieces together!