I recently read a blog from Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist, entitled The strange power of the idea of average https://wp.me/p3jVf9-1iz and it started me thinking. It is well worth a read by the way.
I have some background in statistics, having completed one year at UCL misguidedly studying the subject before jettisoning it for a career in what was then called computing. So, Means, Averages, Medians and so forth have always interested me. Maybe less typically for an IT professional, I also love words.
Tim’s article majors on an “average” sized person, working from a statistical/mathematical basis and it is interesting to mix up what we think when we use technical terms in general language.
Theoretically, as his piece points out, adding up one hundred readings of say height and dividing by one hundred gives a mean height – this is commonly called the average. We also sometimes refer to a median which is the midway number between the highest and the lowest figure in a set of numbers.
So, the Median of these numbers: 1,2,2,6,7,8,9, is 6 – the middle number in the series. Their Mean is 5 – all the numbers added together (35) divided by the number of numbers (7) and we commonly call this the Average.
Ok? Get the difference?
We hardly ever use the word Median for anything except in a mathematical or statistical sense, but, having dug around a little, I became interested in the term Mediocrity, which is the quality of being intermediate between two extremes. These seemed to me to be similar concepts and I’d never thought of that before.
The word Average gets to do a lot of heavy lifting. In fact, just to confuse things even further, we often use the word average when we mean median. When Yogi Bear talked about being “Smarter than the average Bear” he really meant that there were more bears than not, that were dumber than he was. A debateable point as I’m sure his sidekick Boo-boo would agree.
I guess another thing to realise is that sometimes averages don’t mean much because some things have to be whole numbers to mean anything. You can’t have half a hole for example – you just have a smaller hole.
Anyway, I digress.
We have this scientific idea of average which is, give or take, pretty well defined, and, then being human, what do we do? We apply it to all sorts of other things that maybe seem a bit like it. We start to talk about the “Average person” or the “Average home”, or the “Average intelligence”. Then it takes on a life of its own. When we talk about these things, we are clearly not adding up some particular property that they all have, and dividing it by the number of them, are we?
No, we often use average as a sort of quality baseline, a standard where The Devil lurks looking to consume all who stray beneath it. Anyone above the line likes to forget, that, broadly speaking, about half of the population will have to dwell below this mark in order to allow us to be above it. I saw recently, that 55% of Americans believe that they have above average intelligence, but let’s not get into that.
I thought that I’d run one of my soirees and invite a few notables around to get their take on what average means to them, and, I suppose not surprisingly, they relied heavily on examples from the very start.
Generally, the concept of being average was looked down upon by all and sundry. It was certainly not something to aspire to and most equated it to a degree of mediocrity.
Not least, my first guest and long-term hero, Tom Robbins of “Cowgirl” fame who expressed it well enough in the creative sense by asking “why diminish your soul being run-of-the-mill at something?” and he went on to bash mediocrity: “now there is ugliness for you. Mediocrity’s a hairball coughed up on the Persian carpet of Creation.”
Oh bugger. I thought, here we go, an evening of transcendental hippiness.
But no, Awdhesh Singhan, our visiting Indian spiritual thinker, chipped in, agreeing with him. He reckoned that there was “no place for mediocrity in modern society. A General whose courage is just ‘average’ is sure to be counted as a coward in the battlefield”. He went on to say that a “person who is honest half the time and dishonest in the other half is sure to suffer the pain of both”
I particularly liked the honesty bit there as I suspect that most of us spend a fair bit of our time not being quite as honest as we would like.
Mark Twain, who insisted on being called Sam Clemens when he was with friends, took this further by bashing consistency, and Tom nearly fell out of his chair agreeing with him. It could have been the brilliance of the idea, or just possibly whatever Tom had been sipping from his hip flask. We’ll never know.
Sam was sure that the world had been conned into believing that consistency was a good thing: “to such a degree that the average man has turned the rights and wrongs of things entirely around and is proud to be “consistent,” unchanging, immovable, fossilized, where it should be his humiliation.”
Strong words, but you see what I mean about average? In two short steps the assembled company had lambasted mediocracy and consistency, and all in the dreadful name of being average.
Just then there was a knock on the door and a couple of latecomers rolled in.
My old mate Mencken and a friend of his from a bar down the street, “the Dean of counterculture comedians” George Carlin, were both gently swaying at the door, a little the worse for wear, having made some significant acquaintance with a bottle of bourbon. Carlin was delighted to see Sam.
“Hey, Twain” he called, “Great to see you. I won your prize for humour you know?”
Of course, Sam knew nothing about it because the award had been dreamt up by his family, years after his death. But who was counting?
I interrupted their boisterous exchange in an attempt to bring some kind of order and asked Mencken for a quick thought on the way we use the word average. Come on HL I thought, don’t let me down. He pondered for a few moments and then said that he’d been thinking about Darwin and his strange idea that man had descended from apes, and that he thought that it would be “even harder for the average ape to believe that he has descended from man“
We were all a little perplexed by that, but, as I said, he was a bit pissed, so we let it pass, but then Carlin got into his stride:
Hey Ho! He said, “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that”.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who steadfastly ignored his really poor grammar, and all his manly unpleasantness, decided to try to bring a little decorum to the piece, but even she had little time for the average, claiming that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
I’m not sure where that leaves us but never mind.
Mencken jumped in here and asked after her husband.
“ How’s Franklin by the way? How did he measure up to the man you first met?”
“ I’ve often said that if you strike an average between what a woman thinks of her husband a month before she marries him and what she thinks of him a year afterward, then you will have the truth about him.”
She looked at him as though he was something she had tried to scrape from the sole of her shoe, but didn’t respond, apart from giving him one of her famous tight little smiles.
I said that I guessed that we have to accept the fact that about half of the people we know will be below average in anything we choose to measure. It is the way of the world. It is a sobering thought to consider where each of us would score below average. Not humility I guessed.
When I suggested this, George Carlin said that he had recently read that “the IQ and the life expectancy of the average American had recently passed each other in opposite directions”.
Now, the last study that I had seen put the average IQ in the states at 98 and the average life expectancy for all Americans at 79.8 so I was a bit sceptical. But what the hell? “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” I said, and dear old Trump agreed in that funny little pinched-mouth way of his. “Beautiful, beautiful letter, Boris is a great guy and I never even heard of Jeffrey Epstein” he said apropos nothing in particular.
Martha Beck, no not the serial killer, the serial life coach and author, agreed with Carlin claiming that we’ve added 28 years to our average life span in one century and that this was so rapid a change “that our brains couldn’t possibly have evolved to accommodate it” . Daft sod, I thought, that assumes that our brains were at capacity a century ago and there’s absolutely no evidence that we have ever used even half the brains we were born with.
But, instead of arguing, I decided to move the subject on a bit and asked the assembled company about the use of Average as a generalisation.
To my pleasant surprise Sam Ewing came out swinging as he hadn’t done since his old pinch hitting days for the White Sox and the Blue Jays. He said that he had a bit of a downer on tourists because “the average tourist always wanted to go to places where there are no tourists”. That got the ball rolling, so to speak, and others soon came to the plate.
How about “The average dog is a nicer person than the average person”? asked Andy Rooney, US radio and TV newswriter. That’s a generalisation I’ve found to be pretty reliable. Hah! Said Biostatistician John Haldane, I can top that. How about “A fairly bright boy is far more intelligent and far better company than the average adult? That may be a generalisation, but the average adult is remarkably dull”.
This caused Sigmund to lift his eyes from his inkblots proclaiming that there was indeed a distressing contrast “between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult”.
I guess he blamed the parents.
Talking about parents, we were all very amused to hear old Tomas Bailey Aldrich pipe up saying that in his experience, and he had been a child himself, was that “there must be such a thing as a child with average ability, but you can’t find a parent who will admit that it is his child.”
I guess we all assumed that he wasn’t suggesting that any of us thought that our children didn’t have above average ability.
We all had another drink, apart from Eleanor who was sworn off the booze at that time, and, Alan Whitney Brown, no relation to the more famous Newcastle Brown, made quite a telling intervention. “I was on the bill at George’s last Saturday Night Live show”, he said, “God that was fun, you really stuck it to them George”. He went on to say that things had moved on since then and technology had made huge advances. “I mean”, he said, “Our bombs are smarter than the average high school student. At least they can find Kuwait”.
Evan Esar had obviously warmed-up by this stage. You know him, he’s the guy who famously said that “a signature always reveals a man’s character and sometimes even his name.” Anyway, his contribution to our rambling discourse was that “America believes in education: the average professor earns more money in a year than a professional athlete earns in a whole week”. Old Whitney upset him a bit by pointing out that he too was living in the past. It only took a professional athlete an hour or so to earn that much these days.
At this stage we were all delighted, and somewhat awed to hear the sound of Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair motoring across the hall and into our room. His strangely familiar sing-song mechanised voice sang out that “ We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
So, our sun is average but even if we are only an advanced form of monkey, we are special – that’s something that we all enjoyed hearing. Even old Mencken who was so scathing about Darwin’s apes.
I had been doing a bit of research beforehand and had asked for input from many who were unable to attend and can sum up this stuff and the average man as follows:
An average man is not hard to mystify; he has to hear a point seven times before it registers; he would form one twelfth of a jury of men of average ignorance; and although he does not know what to do with this life, he wants another one which will last forever.
If Mr Average was a Muslim, he would probably be no more religious than the average Swede; if he was an Englishman, crushed against his brother on the tube he would pretend desperately that he was on his own; and if he was an American drug prisoner, he would spend more time in prison than rapists who often get out on early release because of overcrowding caused by the Drug war.
If he was European, he would not seem to feel free until he had succeeded in enslaving and oppressing others, and he would have achieved very little since the end of the Second World War, apart from allowing petty, bourgeois regimes in which everything is average, mediocre.
Well that’s what Bjorn Ulvaeus, Michael Badnarik, Paul Weyrich, Tahar Ben Jeloun, Germaine Greer, Herbert Spencer, Anatole France, and Howard Thurston thought.
You’ll have to work to find out who said what if you are that interested.
leave you with one attributed quote though. Buffalo Bill is reputed to have
said “The first trip of the Pony Express was made in ten
an average of two hundred miles a day.
But we soon began stretching our riders and making better time.”
See, we can use averages as an indication of real progress. Pony Express now have very tall riders and they can now cover at least two hundred and one miles a day!
So, going back to Tim Harford’s blog, he says that Elizur Wright, “The father of Life Insurance”, was quite correct to declare that “a single life is uncertain; but we should never leap to the conclusion that an average life is ideal”.
Amen to that!