Humans are terrible with numbers. They just don't fit in our brains. It's why scientists can hammer us with statistics about global warming but we will stop believing in it as soon as it gets cold where we live. It's not our fault -- the human brain just isn't built for this, and quite frankly, we don't really need to process huge numbers to get by in our everyday lives. You don't have to understand long term data trends in order to change a goddamn light bulb.
But there are some basics that everyone should know. Each of them sounds incredibly simple when it's explained, yet each of them will fool you again within days of reading this article. So try to keep in mind ...
5What We Call "Average" Actually Isn't
Sounds Like ...
Here's a shocking statistic: The average income in the United States is around $70,000. If your income is below that level, reading that is quite a kick. You thought you were actually doing pretty well for yourself, but now you're tempted to get a second job just to bump your net worth up to what the asshole next door is probably making. What's their secret, damn it? Are they all cooking meth?
"What the hell else are garages for?"
The Problem Is ...
The popular use of the term "average" is way different from the mathematical term, but they get used interchangeably. That's why we're so often shocked at how the "average" person is richer/fatter/taller than us. In everyday language, we use the word "average" to mean "most people," or the most representative person (as in, "The average person doesn't read classic literature" or "The average Joe can't afford to dress like Prince"). But then when they start using the word "average" to talk about statistics, you get weird results, like the fact that 67 percent of people in the USA make less than the "average" income. So how the fuck can "average" mean "most people" when most people aren't average?
Well, we all learned in school how to calculate an average: You take all the values you're averaging, add them up, and divide them by the number of values. This is fine if what you're trying to average is pretty uniform -- the average of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 is 3, right there in the middle. The problem is that averages are absolutely useless if a minority of numbers are unusually high -- the average of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 40 is 10, which doesn't help anybody know shit about anything.
"Unfair? That averages out to be 12 each!"
And that's the problem with the "average income" statistic -- a few rich people are skewing the shit out of the number. If you're earning less than the average income, it's not because your job is screwing you, it's because you live in the same country as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and whoever owns Coke. Mr. Coke or whoever.
Why Does It Matter?
This is so stupidly obvious when explained, but it creates more myths by the day. For instance, you can see one study showing that for every 100 Americans, there are 88 guns, which could lead someone to reasonably assume that it's hard to find an American who isn't packing heat. Then you see another study from the same year showing that only 43 percent of households have guns in them. It's the same deal -- the people who have tons of guns skew the average upward ... and in the process make it hard as hell to get an idea of the overall picture. More often than not, telling us the average just muddles the issue.
"Every time you enter the room, I feel enormous. Thank you, mathematical averages!"
That's why most reputable sources who try to figure out wealth distribution use the median income, not the average. The median is the actual middle point: You get there by crossing out values on either end until you get to the center, which gives you a more relatable sum of around $50,000. There, we've just made 17 percent of you feel a little better about yourselves.