“Find the narrative in the numbers.” It’s this year’s mantra of data visualization, and some variation thereof is the watchword for all modern journalism: Find the story. Let the facts speak for themselves to tell what happened.

It’s a beguiling idea, the concept that a narration is hidden like a sculpture in every misshapen lump of data if only it could be liberated from the clay of unrelated information. And it’s true that in a world of infinite resources where every bit of existing data could be considered holistically, this would definitely be the case. After all, everything influences **something**. But perhaps it’s time to read a little closer into this much-abused buzzphrase: when we say “Find the narrative”, don’t we really mean, “Attribute some causality?”

Data vis is cool fun exciting stuff, and yes everyone and their aunt has a right, nay, a duty to give it a try. But in the last couple of months we’ve watched this well-meaning catchphrase morph from a description of data-cleaning processes to an injunction to project all kinds of causality on any given collection of numbers. Just three years shy of its 50th anniversary, the prime directive of *How to Lie with Statistics* (“Don’t!”) is getting brushed aside in our excitement to plot the hell out of any data set we can get our hands on.

It’s a difficult thing to explain to a client: sometimes things just happen. An upward trend in sales numbers may not be related to advertising campaigns, and a downward trend may not be the fault of the economy. This is basic basic stuff, people, and it’s just as true now that we can instantly make a groovy looking visualization in Fusion Charts as it was when we needed some graph paper and a sliderule. Being two steps removed from reality means that every visualization has an element of editorialization, but it doesn’t follow that we can suddenly make wild claims about the real-world events they very very abstractly represent.

How would we feel if we treated past representational art forms this way? We all know that the square-looking blob that is a Picasso nude says more about Picasso’s mental tools than what his model actually looked like. Certainly no company would decide to re-tailor their fall clothing line based on his “findings” about the female body. The graph is not the phenomenon.

But there’s something so finite about numbers that when faced with a visualization all of this logic suddenly goes out the window. Correlation is easy to show and impossible to prove. Truly impossible. Short of that infinite holistic data set I mentioned we’re going to have to accept that causality is networked: All a data set can show is is how a data set changed over time. Impart causality – I’m sorry, “narrative” – into it at your own peril.