More than average confusion about what mean means mean

Format: Cartoons
Language/s: English
Short Description:

Cartoon and blog about how averages can hide important variations in effects.

Key Concepts addressed:



She’s right: on average, when people talk about “average” for a number, they mean the mean.

The mean is the number we’re talking about when we “even out” a bunch of numbers into a single number: 2 + 3 + 4 equals 9. Divide that total by 3 – the number of numbers in that set – and you get the mean: 3.

But then you hear people make that joke about “almost half the people being below average” – and that’s not the mean any more. That’s a different average. It’s the median – the number in the middle. It comes from the Latin word for “in the middle”, just like the word medium. That’s why we call the line that runs down the middle of a road the median strip, too.

If the numbers in a group are all pretty close to each other – like our example here, or, say, the ages of everyone in a class at school – then there’s not much difference between the mean and median.

But if the numbers in a group are wildly far apart – the ages of the people who like Star Wars movies, for example, or whose favorite singer is Frank Sinatra – then it can make a very big difference. Even if Strangers In The Night had enough of a resurgence to drag the average age of Ol’ Blue Eyes listeners down, the big Sinatra fan base would still skew older!

Text is reproduced from Cartoons are available for use, with credit to Hilda Bastian.