There’s No Such Thing As Average : an article by: GF Willmetts

Do you find it odd how much we rely on the statistical terms ‘average’ or the ‘norm’ or ‘normal’ or ‘mean’. Different words but the same thing. The middle of a statistical line that means anything else is less than perfect when really no one makes the grade. Its probably a human thing. Pouring all comparable data into a statistical pile, ignoring the extremes on each side and picking something in the middle as if its representative. It’s acceptable in number statistics but, for reality, it doesn’t necessarily reflect, well…reality. You might get an average height or weight but I doubt if you’ll have an ‘average’ person matching all the statistics available and be called ‘an average person’. Who wants to be average. We all like to be better if we can. Even the likes of IQ has been divided into various aspects now rather than someone solely good at answering IQ questions which you can improve upon with practice. You can learn things from statistics that don’t quite match up to reality.

I think the desire to nail things down to numbers can be interpreted in many ways. It can make people think they are inferior or superior to other people which can affect how they are treated in life. When it comes to the likes of intelligence, you don’t really need numbers to show if someone is smart or dim as, a lot of the time, its self-evident. It makes some people feel superior or inferior but it does become more complex than that depending on how benevolent or malevolent we or they are. As geeks, in the past we were looked down on. In the computer age, we become a valuable commodity. One-upmanship tends to be another human fallacy although it tends to mean someone somewhere is going to feel like they are the bottom of the pile. The fact learnt that there are different types of intelligence has meant we can all be smart in different ways.

Different Types Of Statistics

One thing you shouldn’t do is think all statistics are the same thing. Physical data, like measurements, are clearly not the same as that of opinions or personal choices, although there is some connection if you’re making a connection between them. You only have to look at the final questions asking your age and employment status as they are looking for correlation between your choices. Some companies even ask those questions first and if you don’t fit in the criterium they’re after, you get dropped on the spot so you do have to ask what kind of representation they want and makes no allowance for the fact some people might actually lie. Afterall, even a negative result will give a representation of balance. It might save wasting people’s time but it means an imbalance in bias. If you ever get a doorstep or phone statistician collector who isn’t prepared for answers that might not be what they want then stay away from their results. I had one last year about my listening habits on the radio. I don’t listen to the radio but she was happy to record my answers for the data because I was at one extreme.

Physical statistics come into their own when you want, say, a height order as with mountain heights or setting a world record. You probably get a nice drop of Guiness from that even if its for odd extremes. Of course, that does presume all measurements are accurate and taken the same way. Even so, a snowy peak might possible hide the true height of a mountain but only becomes important if the height of similar size mountains are within inches of each others height. That’s an odd sort of statistics and people rarely question such records.

A lot of the time it tends to come up more with population and how its divided as to sex, caste and age and how the census compared to previous ones so it can mark population growth. All rather handy in working out the needs for schools, jobs and such and ensuring that there might be enough for all. Statistics does actually work for the community but gets shaded when people think all statistics are lies. It’s the interpretations that you have to worry about.

Living Up To Statistics

When it comes to physical statistics there are some things that are harder to change. You can’t really change your height because it’s based on your bone lengths. Weight is different, although the new drugs that can change that does suggest it might not be under our control but an odd hormone mix. We know a heavy weight isn’t good for the heart but is there an average that can be achieved for long without a steady diet? In the long term and if the drug becomes common use, then a weight statistic is bound to change quite significantly. That’s a mote point. Even so, the so-called averages can vary from country to country, obviously indicating that an ‘average’ is in the eye of the beholder not for something to try to attain. There is no overall ‘normal’. A lot of people just like to think there is. For us geeks, I doubt if we’d ever qualify as ‘normal’. It wouldn’t feel right.

What it really means is that although some statistics are just data, some can be useful but not all. The fact that it is instilled that we should heed statistics doesn’t mean they are all accurate or truly representative in their interpretation. Geek questions will identify our range of knowledge in a variety of subjects but finding a normality in geekdom is a lot harder because not all of us have the same talents or interests. For us here, we’re SF orientated geeks but would a sports geek be comparable to us?

Statisical Trends

Statistics of any sort indicate a trend that can vary with time. Our ancestors were much smaller than ourselves so should we really take note of comparing that with modern day heights? Different times and changes in diet have made some refinements or even worse, depending on how you look at it. They are only an indication not something that needs to be followed religiously.

Political Statistics

Just because a graph shows a likely win, even when it comes to the likes of voting, doesn’t make it so. Statisticians can get seriously unstuck if their ‘average’ population isn’t a wide enough representation. It’s a prediction not an actual fact until it happens. Unless a vote is taken and everyone asked participates then the prediction is meaningless. The wrong cross-section in 2016 in the UK General Election gave the wrong prediction. Getting a true representation in a small number is an impossible situation when the likes of the UK have 68 million people let alone with even bigger countries. In other words, statistics is not an exact science and not really a science at all when it comes to opinions. It doesn’t allow for people to lie or even not give one if they haven’t made their minds up yet. The ‘Don’t Know’ column then becomes a very grey undecided number. If anything, it needs more qualification as to what they don’t know.

Do You Know What Statistics Is?

Considering how many people are, shall we say, not mathematically orientated and don’t even understand statistics but still use its numbers does sound paradoxical. Easily tested by asking if they know what a standard deviation is. That’s a small percentage either side of the average that means you fall within that makes it a less precise number but allowable for error. So why do so many people rely on it unless they think they see it as an easy number? Mostly because the human herd instinct kicks in as to what might be seen as allowable and acceptable when really, its only a number. Then again, how many people think numbers have some sort of magical properties as witnessed by people picking the same numbers all the time in the likes of any gambling games.

Statistics Can Tell Untruths

That’s not to say statistics can’t be manipulated. The size and variety of the sample taken works better the larger the representation. If you select only a particular part of the population, based on jobs or status, then you automatically get a bias. A question can be written in such a way to direct a certain response, meaning that a no has a different bias under certain circumstances. If you say ‘Don’t know’ then you’re also misdirecting the answer because it leaves more people who’ve given an answer. Tricky call, isn’t it?

The choice of questions can manipulate as well and gear a response to what the sponsor wants. I did say sponsor. A lot of statistics are taken for particular companies and sponsors rather than unbiased and can be swayed towards what they want. This has a lot more significance on the ‘Don’t know’ category because it invariably means they probably didn’t have an opinion on a question just not an answer to fit it. When you’re looking at statistics, always look back on the above before making a decision based on any of them. A particularly worded question might not give you the chance to give the answer you really want to give.

How To Read Statistics

That’s not to say statistics can’t be useful but it does make sense to understand how to read them. You don’t need a degree. As noted above, its more a question of looking at the representation and the questions asked. If the information isn’t readily available then go somewhere else. Ask yourself how you would answer the same questions and see where that would place you on the statistical curve. Chances are you wouldn’t necessarily be in the average but leaning one side or the other will at least reassure you that you may not be alone in your opinion.

Statistics represent so much from opinion to physical data that they can’t all be read the same way.

It’s been said that you should read statistics with a dose of salt but well and truly you need to understand who is asking the information and what they really want. Don’t take the information as a given just a sampling of what is out there. If 9 out of 10 agree to one thing, what did the other one think if not a don’t know. Statistics reveal trends far more than facts.

© GF Willmetts 2024

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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