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How statistics mislead us

Anna Lawlor’s BBC Radio 4 show Typical! reveals how a poor grasp of means and modes skews our idea of what’s normal.

By Rachel Cunliffe

I’ve been anxiously wondering “Am I normal?” since I was about 14 – something which is, ironically, pretty normal. I never expected the answer to come from BBC Radio 4. In Typical!, the financial journalist Anna Lawlor goes on a myth-busting mission to find out how people really live, without being swayed by misleading statistics. 

[See also: How the front door became a British status symbol]

“What happens when we brush aside our stereotypes and dig deeper into the data?” she asks, having just tried to guess what various customers are like from their online shopping orders. The answer is that we find we get things wrong a lot, thanks to widespread misunderstandings about how averages work. When newspaper headlines blast out survey findings on how much sex people are having, for example, they’re normally using the mean, which is whacked up by a small group of (mostly young, male) rampant lotharios and presents a skewed picture for everyone else. It’s far more useful to use the mode and look at what’s most common, rather than a simple mathematical average.

This confusion has consequences that go far beyond our sex lives – think about house prices, salaries, fertility rates. There’s a seven-year difference between the mode and the mean in life expectancy, resulting in a worrying pensions savings gap as people underestimate how long they’re likely to live past retirement. And the relentless focus on students in the media hides the fact that the majority of school leavers don’t go to university. It’s not the most common experience for young adults – it’s just, as one guest puts it, the typical experience of the people who decide what typical is (ie journalists and politicians).

It wasn’t exactly news to me that statistics can be sliced different ways to tell different stories – I remember learning about mode and mean averages in school. Lawlor would probably say that I’m not typical in this regard – and I guess she’s right. But then, considering 21.2 per cent of the UK adult population tune in to Radio 4, I’m not sure the average listener of this programme can be considered typical either.

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Typical!
BBC Radio 4, 27 June, 8pm

[See also: Patented: History of Inventions is perfect fact-of-the-day fodder]

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This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working