Are You an Average of 5’8” Tall?

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Summary:

As a member in good standing of the Mighty Short club, I sometimes fantasize about being an average of 5’8” tall. But not too often, since the notion of an individual being “an average” of a certain height doesn’t make any sense. Yet this misuse of “average” is something I encounter often.

As a member in good standing of the Mighty Short club, I sometimes fantasize about being an average of 5’8” tall. But not too often, since the notion of an individual being “an average” of a certain height doesn’t make any sense. Yet this misuse of “average” is something I encounter often.

For example, statistics about flu outbreaks surface around this time of year. One statistic I came across is that every year, an average of 36,000 people die from the flu. But that’s incorrect. Every year, the number of people who die from the flu is exactly that: the number who die. The average of 36,000 is the result of adding up the number of deaths over the number of years flu deaths have been tracked and dividing by the number of years. So the correct way to state it would be this:

On average, 36,000 people die annually from flu.

Or to add a bit more detail for people who might wonder how long they’ve been tracking flu deaths, it might be stated like this:

Based on ten years of data, an average of 36,000 people die annually from flu.

Another misuse of “average” I’ve come across is an average presented as a range, such as that the average winter temperature at a specified fun-in-the-sun location is 63 degrees to 88 degrees. Not so. The statement should be that the average temperature is, let’s say, 74 degrees, but that it varies from 63 degrees to 88 degrees. Or perhaps the temperature varies from an average low of 63 to an average high of 88 – which is how websites that track weather usually put it.

These kinds of misuse are examples of innumeracy, and innumeracy is on the rise. So I hope that you’ll notice such misstatements when you hear them and that you’ll avoid making them yourself. And if I’m all wrong on the above nit-picking, I hope you’ll let me know.

In the meantime, I’ll go back to imagining myself as an average of 5’8” tall. No, make it an average of 5’10”. Valid or not, it’s fun to imagine myself looking down from an average of Really Really High.
 

User Comments

2 comments
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Ah, but if your height fluctuates regularly between 5' 4" and 5'12" (as my niece likes to think of her height) then your subject heading seems perfectly reasonable...
Seriously, though, I agree with you. Hearing or seeing such things sets my "teeth" on edge - especially when it is in the news.
That and the misuse of apostrophe's. (Ouch!)

October 19, 2011 - 11:44am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Innumeracy affects (an average of) 10 out of 7 people.

October 20, 2011 - 11:41am

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