I Hope This is an Above Average Column

By Joe Darby

I suppose that, on the average, most of us would consider ourselves more or less an average guy or an average gal (though all of our children are above average, of course).

Average is a word that we use fairly often, I think, but what does it really mean. It can mean something that’s typical as in, “The average American likes hamburgers.”

Or it can mean the mathematical odds of something happening, as in “if you flip a coin, half of the time it will come up heads and half of the time it will come up tails.”

Or it can denote exact statistics, such as “John Smith’s batting average is .302 for the Yankees this year.” That means that 30.2 percent of the time that Smith has come to bat, he has gotten a hit. But unlike the odds of flipping a coin, a batting average doesn’t predict what Smith will do for the rest of the year. He could go on a hitting streak or go into a slump and not get a hit for 10 games in a row. Then his “average” would have changed drastically.

Then, I’ve always wondered how the law of averages, as they call it, almost always, always seems to prevail. It seems to me that once in a while, circumstances would change and the law would be broken, but it hardly ever is.

For example, let’s say a restaurant on Front Street averages 25 customers on Friday night. But for some reason, on one particular Friday night, 125 people decide to go to that restaurant. You can imagine the chaos, as well as the joy of the restaurant owner, though they might run out of food by 8 p.m. But that kind of thing doesn’t really happen because of the good old law of averages.

And let’s say that there’s a very important City Council meeting, which is expected to draw a large crowd. But it just so happens that all of the people who intended to go either feel sick or have an important obligation that prevents them for going to the meeting. So, there the City Council members sit, and no one shows up for the vital meeting.

I know those examples are kind of stretching it, but I do believe that it’s rather amazing how the law of averages controls our lives.

Averages also tell us how things are. The average height of the American male is five feet, nine inches. (I would have thought it would be a little taller, but that’s the numbers the Internet gave me.) But the actual number of American men who are 5-9 would certainly be in a minority if you counted all of the other men who are not, in fact, 5-9.

As alluded to in the example above about flipping a coin, averages can also tell us what the odds are of placing certain bets. If you go to a casino and play the roulette, the odds will always be against you. For example, if you bet the ball will fall on an even number, or on a red (as opposed to black) number, you might think your odds of winning would be 50 percent. But there are two slots on the wheel that are neither red nor black, nor odd or even. So your odds of winning on such a bet are 18 out of 38, less than half.

If you want to bet on a long shot, but increase your potential winnings, you could bet on a single number, say 21. But your odds of winning that bet are only one in 38. Of course, you’d win big if 21 came up.

Today’s technology allows the experts to do all kinds of things with chances and odds. Every time you look at a predicted path of a hurricane, you are looking at the end results of all kinds of weather data having been entered into the computer, which then calculates the odds of the storm taking any given path. Those paths often vary widely in a storm’s early life, but they generally come together and, more often than not, they are right.

I had recently read an article on chances and odds and, as you can see, it kind of fascinated me. I hope these bits of info give you something to think about also.