The Pointelessness of The Average

Are you standing up? I’m about to blow your mind. I love statistics, I have the hots for numbers, and there is one type of number that is my favourite for all it’s sneaky deception: the humble …

Don’t you hate it when someone tries to build up to something and then do a reveal, but the thing was in the title the whole time? (Actually I don’t care if you hate it, I don’t need you to be similar to me.) It’s like the title is better than the body at getting to the point.

… the humble average.

If Bill Gates walks into a bar the average salary of people in the bar will be over $1 million dollars a year. That was Example 1! So I hope it’s clear that in this case, the statistic of average salary has absolutely no meaning. Nothing intelligent can be inferred from it. And any attempt to infer anything from it will result in a faulty assumption. Any decision based on this assumption will be a bad decision. It will all happen so smoothly. And it happens so often.

The average sale price for a house in a nearby suburb (where one would go to pay a lot of money for clothes that were made by the person that owns the shop) is a smidge over $2 million. That’s a lot for a house, and that’s the average price. A younger, more stupider, me would have looked at that statistic and thought that most houses were around two million bucks. Or that half of them cost more than two mil and half of them cost less. That’s how our brains work (mine anyway, fuck knows how your brain works), which is why the average is such a great tool for misleading.

Here’s the sale prices for recent sales in the aforementioned fancy suburb:


What the fuck does $2mil have to do with what you now know? Nothing, that’s what. That was Example 2! Stare at it. Stare at the point where $2mil is. It took me a long time to understand that an average can be completely devoid of meaning. I felt so enlightened when I finally got it that I want to share that enlightenment. Also, I’ve started a religion. We meet on Wednesday nights, come along. Don’t bring anyone you know, do bring lots of milk.

Back to it… Remember, won’t you please, that the job of the common journalist is to make you mad. So if there’s nothing bad happening, but they want to make you think that there is, they will employ the great deceiver: the average.

Here comes Example 3… Recently I read that the gender wage gap was growing. Really, I thought. Bullshit, I then thought (being in-tune as I am with my fellow humans). So I took the day off work, got naked, and dug into the numbers. It was absolutely true that the gap between the average wage for all women and the average wage for all men had grown further apart in the last year. Weird, thought I.

Now, if you’re not going to come to any conclusion based on this information (I’m trying not to use the word infer so much), then you may continue on your way. But that doesn’t happen. You will tell someone else, they will tell someone else, and we will all know that world is falling apart ‘cos bitches be scrounging and men are all cunts that rape and pillage.

But everything isn’t so bad. Broken down by industry, the wage gap had gotten less for every single industry. How the fuck could that be? How could the wage gap be smaller for every single industry, but bigger on average? First of all, thank you for reading this far. Secondly, mining pays really well. The average salary is up around $150k. Also, the mining industry is a real sausage fest. And also, mining is really booming. So there are shit-loads more $150k jobs. Across all industries, the average is about $60k – so the average bloke salary goes up. Not so many new jobs for the ladies, so the average salary there doesn’t change so much. And there you have it: average male salary up, average female salary the same. Headline: Gender Wage Gap Increasing

So next time you hear an average being reported on the evening news, shoot the television and everyone in the room.

While I’m at it, I want you to think about the second go-to deceptive statistic: opt-in reporting. This is where you see a survey that reports on responses from people that responded to a survey. Before the internet, this was mostly 60+ year old women. Now it is mostly 20- boys.

For example, the rating of a movie on IMDB is not the average rating. It is the average rating of people that rated the movie on IMDB. This is why, in the top 20 movies of all time we have one Batman, two Star Wars and three Lord of the Rings movies.