Errol Morris' quiz about killer asteroids was a secret experiment to find out how fonts affect our thinking


80 Responses to “Errol Morris' quiz about killer asteroids was a secret experiment to find out how fonts affect our thinking”

  1. Tribune says:

    Have they considered evaluating bar graphs that are not proportional to their values?

  2. Edward says:

    Our brains are so funky.

  3. Teller says:

    Baskerville is the more cultured brother of Times Roman.

  4. JoeBuck says:

    These are the most blatantly dishonest bar graphs that I’ve seen in a long time.  15627 is 95.5% of 16359, but the Comic Sans bar is shown as about 1/3 the height of the Baskerville bar.  Drawing these graphs honestly would reveal that the differences are tiny and, depending on sample size, possibly not even statistically significant. I expect better from Boing Boing.

    •  Maybe it’s a secret secret test to secretly test your ability to spot faulty bar graphs?

    • atimoshenko says:

      It’s the default way Excel plots these values (min value is 15,000 for the top chart, for instance). If the person doing the graphs then does not think very hard abut how appropriate this representation is to the data actually being represented, you get this kind of silliness.

      EDIT: Worse still, the default Excel plot includes the y-axis which makes the non-zero minimum clear. They decided to get rid of the axis and just display the values above the bars, which resulted in an even greater misrepresentation. Sigh.

      • Jonathan Badger says:

        Yes. This is particularly annoying because despite the efforts of the more computational savvy biologists to get their bench colleagues to use things like R, which actually plot things correctly, Excel is still the standard graphing tool used by most bench biologists.

    • Jason Rihel says:

      Baskerville was signficant.  Cutting axes, although should be noted, is a fine way to highlight said statistically significant differences.  Showing the bars identically would be just as midleading.  Normalizing the graphs would have been another way to highlight the differences, but that would be even more confusing for a lay reader, I would think. 

  5. Ian Wood says:


    this is not.

  6. theophrastvs says:

    “Computer Modern”! whoohoo…. hail hail [la]TeX, land of the brave and free! and blessings unto Saint Knuth.

  7. David Kadavy says:

    Someone threw together a nice “adjusted” version of the graphic, to make up for the misleading scale:

    Also, since I’m sure someone will ask why it is that people hate comic sans so much, here is an article and talk about that very subject:

  8. GawainLavers says:

    Heh, the next post is by a friend of mine. I know someone famous!

  9. Brainspore says:

    I hear that people who use monospaced fonts are perceived as highly intelligent and incredibly sexy.

  10. Back in the late 1970″s, I attended a printing workshop at the literary press, Copper Canyon Press.  Co-publisher Tree Swenson explained that serif fonts are easier to read than san serif ones, because the “wings” help the eye move from letter to letter.  I never forgot her words when I decided to finally complete my college education in the 1990′s.  You see, I noticed that my younger classmates preferred san serif fonts, so I figured I could give myself a leg-up by doing my professors a favor and make my papers just a little easier to read by using Times New Roman.  I’d like to think it made at least a little difference.  

  11. MollyMaguire says:

    I only believe scientific statements inked out with a K&E Leroy lettering set.

  12. Kludgegrrl says:

    I used to tell my college students to use serif fonts on their papers, although if they got snippy about it I’d laugh and say they didn’t have to — I just preferred serif fonts.  I think they thought I was crazy (for that, and other reasons too).  I was just being honest.  I hate reading anything lengthy in a sans-serif font.

  13. If I follow correctly, for this study n=157,120. For Comic Sans 60.4% correctly agree with the statement. For Baskerville 62.8% correctly agree. That’s defiantly statistically significant with a caveat that the population is only Washington Post Opinion Page (or Boing Boing) readers. That 2.4% difference could be important to you if you are running from president or something?

    • jackbird says:

       If I’m running from president, I’m probably thinking about how to avoid the secret service agents rather than anything about statistics.

  14. Palomino says:

    I often think of “verbal fonts”, accents, and how easy it  is for someone with a posh British accent to sell us Americans trash. Now think of other non sexy accents we would have no problem hanging up on. 

  15. Pope Ratzo says:

    What do people have against Georgia?  It doesn’t look that different from Baskerville, which is at the other end of the scale.

    • Dimmer says:

      They just don’t have Georgia on their minds any more.

      • Bottle Imp says:

        It’ll have its day again. We’ll all get on that midnight train. Sometimes we all crave a simpler place and time.

    • Daneel says:

      Try living here. Then you’ll know.

    • Dude, Baskerville is on the other side of the planet from Georgia.

      • Pope Ratzo says:

         All serif fonts look approximately the same to me.  When the UofC press published something of mine some years ago, I remember talking to the designer, thinking he was seeing something I couldn’t, wondering if I had the typographical analogue of color-blindness.

        Given the care with which typographers do their work, I don’t doubt that there is a great difference.  I know that certain editions of books please me more than others, engage my eye better, allow me to read longer.  Maybe it’s the font or the reflective property of the paper or how much the weight of the book fatigues my hands.  I don’t know.

  16. jhoosier says:

     I teach ESL and some of the resources I pull off the internet have worksheets in Comic Sans.  My students and other teachers have complained that the font is too hard to read.

  17. justaddh3o says:

    Loftus, E.F. & Palmer, J.C. (1974). Reconstruction of auto-mobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 13, 585 -589

  18. Mitch_M says:

    Fonts remind me of how much I hated typography class and regretted not telling the teacher to f_k off when he told us to do fifty thumbnail sketches and then bitched about people doing exactly fifty thumbnail sketches.

  19. jackrabbitslim says:

    I find that I have an excess of trustworthiness and credibility. 

    I’m switching to Comic Sans posthaste!

  20. Scott Lenger says:

    Fascinating. On a technical note, the title should read: “How typefaces affect people’s thinking”.

  21. zartan says:

    Someone in the comments on the Times site pointed out the important caveat that Baskerville is not a web-safe font and, as a result, many who completed this quiz didn’t actually see Baskerville at all.  Can a web designer reply and indicate what font Baskerville would be rendered as on a Windows machine?  Is it Times New Roman?  If so, this effect is probably driven by familiarity with Times New Roman.

    Would be great to see the results adjusted to only include those from configurations that would likely render the text in Baskerville itself.

    • Bodhipaksa says:

      And there are people like me who have deleted Comic Sans from their machines and who don’t have Computer Modern installed. Was that kind of thing factored in to the study?

      • dnebdal says:

        It’s possible they did the questions as images (or webfonts, but I don’t think you can rely on 100% support rate for those yet). 

    • It’s possible – can’t be sure without seeing the original quiz – that they embedded the fonts using @font-face, so the viewers would have downloaded them from a web server rather than relying on them being installed. That’s certainly how I would have done it.

    • Stuart Philp says:

      Typically it’s specified in the css fallback rules. You might say Times New Roman is the first fallback if Baskerville isn’t found, and then a generic serif font which the browser will pick for you based on it’s default font setting. The css for that is something like “font-family: Baskerville, Times New Roman, Serif;”.

      If you don’t do it that way, then the browser will figure it out for you based on it’s default serif setting anyway, which I believe is Times Roman on OS X and Times New Roman on Windows (it’s  Helvetica and Arial for sans-serif if you’re curious).

  22. jfrisby says:

    The original graphs from The NYTimes are weighted by strong/somewhat/slight levels of agreement levels for each font in the graphs shown here — I think that explains the wide gaps visually here, doesn’t it?  The unweighted graphs are presented first in the original article.

  23. Joe Maynard says:

    so people are inclined to believe a statement presented in a similar font to a textbook, but are inclined to question a statement presented in the same font as passive aggressive work notes about making sure you mark your food in the fridge? truly shocking

  24. oasisob1 says:

    They used Baskerville to say it is the new I saw it on the Internet, so it must be true.

  25. YourMessageHere says:

    This drives me mad.  This is about typefaces, not fonts! These words are not interchangeable.  ‘Typeface’ describes the graphical style of the letters.  ‘Font’ describes a combination of typeface and size.  I would really, really expect someone conducting research on this subject to know this.

    • GoatLordMessiah says:


      Not to brush off the fact you are correct, this is a very minor thing. Chill.

      • GlyphGryph says:

        Would you accept font-type, perhaps? That seems to be significantly more common nomenclature than typeface.

        • GoatLordMessiah says:

          I’m not that fussed either way; it just seems odd, to me at least, that people get mad over such things.

    • Finnagain says:

       So, is the term “font size” redundant redundant?

    • Jason Rihel says:

      Microsoft Word lists these ‘typefaces’ under the “font” tab.  In fact, on my screen right now, I see “recently used fonts”  followed by “Times New Roman”, “Ariel”, etc. This is how the term is used now, sorry.

  26. Stahlbrand says:

    Random factoid: the “Canada” wordmark is in the Baskerville font with a modified… uh, I think it was a modified ‘r’ to wit.

  27. johndberry says:

    What Morris’s experiment doesn’t test is people’s response to how each typeface is used: i.e., typography. That’s at least as important as the choice of font, in how we perceive and respond to any text.

  28. slowtiger says:

    Big news. As any decent graphics designer will tell you, there’s indeed an emotional quality in any typeface. Doesn’t matter where it comes from – mostly it’s just “this is always used by banks, so it’s a perfect typeface for another bank” – but this is why chosing the right font for a corporate identity can be a very hard thing to do, up to the point where they need to design a completely new typeface.

  29. Christina says:

    I don’t see how being the 3rd from the bottom in terms of rates of disagreement makes Comic Sans have “one of the highest rates of disagreement.” It looks like one of the lower rates of disagreement, to me.

  30. hassenpfeffer says:

    I <3 Baskerville, but my true love is Garamond.

    On a completely tangential note, an especially convincing font was part of Doofenshmirtz's episodic scheme to take over the Tri-State Area in the recent Phineas & Ferb episode "Ferb Latin."

  31. Jason Rihel says:

    Only Baskerville came out as significantly different from the others, not comic sans.

    As for the y-axis Nazis, there is nothing wrong with cutting the axis to show the difference, which was significant.  Highlighting their sameness with a full axis is even more misleading.  Yes, he should have drawn our attention to the axis switch, but he also could have normalized the data to a single font (say, the font the intro to the quiz was in) and highlighted the differences that way.

    Blindly following Tufte off a cliff….

  32. Jason Rihel says:

    And of all the Tufte zombies complaining about the bar graph, not one pointed out the ugly, needless pie chart in the middle of the NYT article.

  33. fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

    Would it be considered ‘mean’ to go IRB shopping to see if I can find somebody who will go full-metal-hardass over this unapproved human experimentation?

  34. spenze says:

    I have to say, I’m shocked there aren’t greater differences between fonts than this.
    As a designer, I was taught that your typeface is for design as your clothes are to you. A comic sans would be a sloppy T-shirt and shorts, while a helvetica would be a modern cut suit.

    That said, I guess in north america most people don’t give a damn about how you dress either.

  35. dm10003 says:

    People have come to use the wrong typographical term for “typeface” or “face”.

    “Font” refers to a particular style within the typeface such as outline, bold italic, light condensed, etc.

    The terms “font” and “typeface” are not technically synonymous.

    • Jason Rihel says:

      Isn’t that just a function of the fact the Microsoft Word calls these “recently used fonts” when you click on the “font” tab? 

      Almost everyone on the planet with a computer sees these called “fonts” every day. 

  36. Okapi says:

    This would be much more interesting if they were able to correlate some feature(s) (ex. Surface area) of the typefaces with agreement and disagreement.

    If there was a correlation with surface area, one might make the prediction that agreement could be altered by changing the font size.

  37. Kimmo says:

    So this is why the CERN guys used Comic Sans.

    It’s what good scientists do; encourage dissent.

  38. Grahamers2002 says:

    So is this post a meta fakeout?  That is, it this story — which reveals that the real issue is NOT about asteroids but about fonts — REALLY another layer of deception and the REAL issue under review is the effect of horrible bar graphs on readers?

    • Jason Rihel says:

      What’s wrong with the bar graph?  It had to be cut to show the statistical differences in the data, a legit practice.

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