mean people or, the myth of the average

What does an average tell us?

Take a sampling, add the individual parts, divide them by the number of occurrences and you have an average, a middle-of-the-road figure that is representative of the whole. Take the number of at bats for a baseball position player and the number of hits, and you have a batting average. Take the most homely person you know, and the most attractive person, and everyone in between, and somewhere you’ll find an average person.

Doesn’t that sound odd? How odd is this idea of an average?

Consider this, for example:

History - Weather Underground

This is May’s up-to-date weather calendar for my hometown, courtesy Weather Underground. (Sorry for the formatting, just click on it and spare your eyesight the trouble.) The average temperature after 25 days into this month is just over 62*. Based on the average, I should probably have jeans and a zip-up hoodie on. Yet I, and almost everyone else in town today, are wearing shorts and short sleeves. Based on the average, no one should be sunning themselves, yet suntan lotion and sunblock are hard to come by in stores.

Averages are little more than trivia, a useless piece of information saved for board games and the local bar. The average temperature on 1 May is 61*, yet this year was significantly cooler. In fact, looking at the calendar, the high temperature was at the average exactly once, granted a few days where the high actually was within three degrees on either side. April’s calendar was even more dichotomous, with no days hitting a daily average on record, often wildly off the mean.

The truth is plain, averages give us no predictive powers that weren’t already there: your guess is probably as good as mine. In fact, if averages show us anything, it is that they can be easily manipulated–lies, damned lies and statistics, and the sort.

What an average can give us, though is insight into the past up to the present. There are too many variables influencing weather, and the fact that a particular day happened to be May 14 means absolutely nothing toward why it only reached 55*. Sorry, six o’clock television weatherguessers, your job is largely to impress buzzed patrons at the local tavern. (And they might even be better at your job than you are!)

Beyond weather, there is another place where ‘average’ is relative at best: normal. Normalcy is entirely subjective: what is normal to a thirty-something husband and father of two spending an afternoon at a coffee shop writing is fundamentally abnormal to a sixty-something retiree traveling in an RV with his wife, (Hi, Dad!) and that is abnormal to the single doctoral student on the West Coast, which is strange to the doctoral student in Illinois, and unusual for the homeless guy in Kansas City or the addict in rehab. If life is anything, it is anything but homogenized, which is why attempts at cultural homogeneity tend to end in a bloodbath.

Back to that thirty-something husband and father of two, ten years ago, I spent significant time in this coffee shop, in this seat, at this pestilence window. I couldn’t tell you how many papers I wrote here, how many pages I read, blog posts written, coffees consumed… This was normal for me then, it is not now. The average changes, because I’m here now doesn’t mean I’ll be here tomorrow because I used to practically live here. Like a financial prospectus, past successes are no guarantee of future results.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, except for an average, which as an expectation is setting one’s self up for disappointment and, as a predictor, is about as reliable as the flight pattern of a gnat.

Incidentally, if one wants a clearer picture of a context, it is obtained not through averages, but through medians. Average income and median income are two very different portraits of cities, average versus median church size as well, like the average ERA against the median ERA of pitchers in the Major Leagues. (Even then, earned run averages are entirely misleading, which is why statistics like WHIP–walks and hits per inning pitched–have taken hold amongst stat dorks and Strat-heads. Nolan Ryan was a Hall of Fame pitcher without question, but Greg Maddux had a much, much better body of work over his career. WHIP helps tease those things out, along with less arcane figures like home runs allowed, but that’s beside the point.)

No one looks for average in real life, not an average person, average job, average house or average experience. Yet many live bound by a mean, this is what everyone does in this city, at my age, after work. Really? We have the power to make choices that can help break away from the average, to choose to not live in a way that settles for average, which is another way to say mediocrity. Every moment is an opportunity toward better than average, just as every day’s temperature will not fall on the mean figure. The future is not bound by the trendlines of the past and present, what the experts and pundits say or how the world appears to be: the difference is what is within.

What does an average tell us? Ultimately, nothing of practical value.


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