Well, maybe not intentionally, but I recently read two articles where averages were used in such a way that the real, underlying issue was completely obscured. In short, I feel like I wasted my time, and am feeling a little bitter about it.
So, first off, it’s been rainy and wet in these parts the past week or so. Really, really wet and rainy, with flood watches (for my immediate area) and warnings (for parts a little farther north) almost every day, to include coastal flood watches pretty much nonstop. So, yep, it’s been wet. Now, this is actually welcome because we had a fairly dry winter–I just wish it hadn’t come all at once. I believe it was on the edge of drought conditions based on the low precipitation (not that it’s ever dry here like the West gets when they have a drought). Still, this rain has definitely taken care of it. Still, I was reading a weather forecast where one of the commenters noted that we were still very much in a rain deficit from September 2016. Yes, 2017 was comparatively dry, but…sorry, rain deficits don’t really matter once you go through a growing season. Plants only care what’s fallen since this spring, not what happened two years ago. The longer perspective is interesting, but, if you’re a farmer or rely on rain for any reason, not terribly useful. The other problem with this approach is that an average evens out those annual fluctuations, so to try and calculate a rain deficit over two years against the 30-year average is…highly suspect, at best.
The other article that made dubious use of averages involved the cost of owning a home in each state. OK, I should really know better by now, but I got sucked in because I thought it would be a discussion about the mix of jobs in each state, what those pay on average, and how that translates into being able to afford a home. Even this would require many levels of extrapolation and waiving away regional economic differences within a state, but it could be an interesting study. Instead, it was a comparison of the median salary for each state to the average cost of a home. I don’t even think the article specified what kind of home was under consideration (one bedroom? Two? Single family or condo?), and there certainly wasn’t any effort to explore how urban and rural areas within a state might be different and to what extent this would throw the average home cost or median salary. At least they used the median salary, rather than an average. I still don’t know what their methodology was or what sources they used for salary data. So, again, not actually a useful article, especially since for most states the median salary was actually well below what they said you would need to pay the “average” home cost. At least they had some pretty pictures for each state.
Of course, it should go without saying, but any time someone uses an average to support his or her argument, there’s likely to be some deception going on, whether or not it is intended–you just need to be able to ask the questions to get at what those averages represent in truth, rather than what they are purpored to present.