The value of averages and statistics

A teacher once said average is the best of the worst
and the worst of the best. Not silly enough to make me
drop the course, but a good example of vocalized pause.
Meaningless time filler. I hope he has improved since
then.

Insurance companies pay lots of attention to averages.
If I am insuring millions of people and I know on
average how many will die, houses will burn down,
cars will crash I can make a good guess at what losses
will cost. It is hard to guess which ones though.

Other businesses pay attention to how many average
employees are necessary to operate an average office
or store, keep an average truck running, move stuff
around an average warehouse, manufacture an
average product.

Average wages, taxes, utilities, materials and supplies
give a clue about average possible profit or loss. Since
half is below, half is above the average, and the causes
are many and varied the possibilities seem endless. It
does provide jobs though. Especially if I am an above
average, average figure outer.

Averages and statistics are a better source of
entertainment than many TV shows. This is because …..
(drum roll)…. newspapers, magazines, TV broadcasters
gain audience and revenue by exaggerating, hyping
and sensationalizing. They make routine events and
statistics sound as exciting as possible starting with the
headline. It’s what they do.

Example: Politician A and politician B are running for
a local office. The media reports that A took a trip to Las
Vegas at government expense and B was once accused
of having sex with a minor. A’s Vegas trip was for helpful
job training and he paid for most of it. B’s charges by a
disgruntled father were when he was eighteen, she was
seventeen, and they got married. Those things will
appear later. In small print. Behind the sports section.
The papers are selling, advertisers are happy and
revenues are high. Reporters got raises for telling the
truth in a profitable way.

Example: About two percent of us get cancer each year
except if one of my parents had it my chances go to three
percent. Three percent is fifty percent more than two. It
is also one percent more than two. Which headline will
get the most attention? Fifty percent more chance of
cancer or one percent more?

Example: Statistics show that car A averages zero point
seven defects at delivery and car B one point four. If you
are selling magazines which headline is more exciting?
Car A is twice as good as car B or there is very little
difference? Since both sold thousands of vehicles in this
area it is not difficult to get testimonials either way, on
either car.

Example: Let’s say there have been fifty murders here
this year and a few years ago there were twenty five.
There are about a million of us around here so fifty
people make up a tiny fraction of one percent. Which
headline would you write to sound important? The
number of murders has doubled or your chances are
still almost zero? Twenty thousand to one.

Now that most of us have access to the internet we can
also get unfiltered opinions on just about any subject.
Those opinions, like statistics, may have value or be
worthless. Comments from John or Jane may have
careful thought and research or just be blurted out with
neither. Let the buyer beware.

My unfiltered opinion is statistics and averages are
good if they confirm what I believe and faulty if they don’t.
They are boring if taken seriously and entertaining if I
pick them apart. The mental exercise doesn’t hurt but
I’m not going to obsess about them. (or did I just do that?)
Hmmmm… on average how many people obsess about
them? Let’s see ………

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Ken