Sunday, 13 February 2011

Averages: they are dangerous and why you should always question them

People like to measure things around them, and to summarise their findings.  These summarised findings usually appear on our radars as averages:

"average house prices rose by...", "the average middle-ages male has an income of...", "the average family likes to go on holiday xyz times a year..."

What does that mean in reality?  Everything and nothing.  But on average it is half useful (you see what I did there?).  Averages can tell us a bit about the world, but it's vitally important for us to understand how the averages were calculated before we actually believe a number or, worse still, attempt to use it when making a decision which we think is informed by our knowledge of this magical average.

I've written this freestyle note because you'll see in the section entitled why this blog exists a statement that I'll be "sending one piece of mailart a day (on average)".  Well, you'll see that I've fallen extremely behind this average at the moment, but will make it up later.  That's fine, at the end of the year, I'll still have produced 365 pieces of mailart which, spread over 365 days will equal one a day on average.  However, for someone expecting that average to actually reflect the everyday activity of my mailart making would be very misled.

So, don't be shy, question the average next time you read about it in a newspaper, you'll make much better sense of the REAL world.