Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics"

Mark Twain

Recently I did something silly. I reacted in a really, really, really silly way. Initially the term "You are a complete dumb arse" came to mind, but after thinking about it for a while I started to make myself some excuses. I thought, "I am under stress, I guess it is a pretty average reaction if you take everything into consideration". After a couple of these thoughts the cunningly rhetorical questions came thick and fast.
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- What makes you think you are an emotional superman?
- Don't you think that your reaction was a pretty typical, average sort of reaction?
- You were tired and overwrought weren't you?
- What average person wouldn't have reacted exactly the same?
- You are a male after all, doesn't the average male react like that?
- Since when did you rise above the norm as some sort of paragon of virtue?
(It's a long list but I will stop there)
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The word that interests me in all of this is the word "average". An average is obtained by adding up a total of numbers and dividing it by how many there are. This gives you a statistical average for the given numbers. This leads us into the realm of statistics. Statistics is about data, data gathering and its interpretation.
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Mark Twain has a well known saying about statistics which is the title of this blog post. He said, "There are lies, damned lies and statistics."
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C. G. Jung would probably have agreed with Mark Twain on this. Let me unpack Jungs idea on averages for you so you know what I mean.
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Jung made the point that statistical averages are only of use on a large scale and for a specific purpose. Finding an average is useful and is meaningful in certain circumstances, but it can mean that the "average" in the statistics doesn't actually exist - and because it may not exist it is useless as a statistic when one is dealing with a specific person. It tells us nothing about individuals - Let me explain.:
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Let us say that you load up a large dump truck with rocks. There are rocks as big as tables. There are rocks as big as as shoes, marbles, cups, buckets, car wheels, one or two the size of a washing machine etc, etc, etc. After you have loaded up the truck you individually weigh each rock. You obtain an average weight.
You then try and find a rock of that exact average weight amongst all these rocks. It is quite on the cards that you will not find that average rock at all. The average is often a mathematical statistic and not a reality at all.
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The point Jung is making is that if we want to deal with human beings we turn to the individual not to a statistical average. Each rock on the dump truck is unique in size and weight and human beings are unique in every possible way as well.
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So despite the fact that we all react in similar ways to certain circumstances, we react as individuals within our own upbringing, genetic inheritance, life experiences and all the other myriad of circumstances that make up an individual life context.
When we look at ourselves and our reactions as those of an individual rather than as a statistical average - ("You are a male after all, doesn't the average male react like that?") we throw the responsibility back on ourselves where it deserves to be and are not able to hide behind the "damned lies" we tell ourselves all the time. It is each individual who is responsible for their thoughts, words, actions and reactions.
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Life is about individual responsibility within a shared humanity - we live out that responsibility in our own unique and individual way - and there's nothing average about that at all.
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7 comments:

Delwyn said...

So it would seem that you are back at square one...

And where does that leave you with your supposed 'over' reactions...

Do you want to belong to the fictitious average

Without your shield of the average which you have just destroyed,
do you want to stay reacting the same way

what are your options now?

You are in the damn cactus!

Alden said...

Hmmm they are very prickly comments - I shall have to drink some cactus juice and have a think about this. :-)

Janice said...

Alden, just remember; when life hands you lemons, get out the tequila and the salt! Unless, of course, you have high blood pressure, in which case, leave out the salt!

Alden said...

Well Janice thank you that is about the best advice I have received all week - you are obviously a woman of wisdom and experience! I agree - have a drink, shoot the breeze and count your blessings. I don't have high blood pressure but I do have high cholestrol so I will add the salt and eat something that doesn't have too much fat in it - what do you suggest we can safely eat while we drink our tequilas? - actually bugger it, lets just eat whatever we damn well want to just this once :-)

Janice said...

Oh, I think the perfect food would be something we call nachos, that is taco chips drizzeled with salsa, Melted cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and jalapenos. We'd need some mariachi music too, and we'd have to speak Spanish to get the full effect of the tequila, which I would drink neat, with a cerveza chaser. And bugger the consequences, I Can't think of anything more fun than drinking tequila with you!!!

Alden said...

Ok Janice it's a date. I have bought a crate of Tequila in preparation. I can't speak Spanish but I will bring an old sailor friend of mine who is an excellent translator of books into English and should be able to take care of the Spanish problem although after a few glasses of the stuff everything anyone says will sound like double Dutch anyway.
I think we should make this a big party and collect people along the way - the only party entry requirement should be that each person is capable of talking a load of old cobblers, laughing a lot and are unable to spell the word Tequila after half a dozen glasses of the stuff - so what do you think?

Janice said...

What an excellent idea, Alden; you are clearly a man who knows how to let his hair down!! I find that tequila doesn't affect my head, but heaven help me if I try to dance, or, ahem, try to walk to the ladies room. Although it sounds like I'm an experienced drinker, I am not, so a few shots will probably meke me quite silly; a crate of tequila would keep me going for months. We'll have to get my friends Julie and Graham over from Tasmania; I know you'd enjoy them, they sailed from Victoria, B C to Townsville, took them two years,and they have lots of stories about that. So it's a big date, I'll look forward to that!