Torture Numbers, and They Will Confess to Anything


Geography graduate student Antonio Medrano recently came across an article that might make you think twice when you hear about the “average” this or that. Antonio was reminded of a recent Geography article, “Geography in the Workforce: Good News to Share,” particularly a reference to “10 jobs with above average salaries” which was cited by the author of the article, Jerome Dobson.

“Using the Mean in Data Analysis: It’s Not Always a Slam-Dunk” was posted on March 9, 2012, by Michell Paret on her Minitab blog: “We always hear about the ‘average’ of this and the ‘average’ of that…the average temperature, the average price of gasoline, the average number of children per household, etc. In fact, I just saw an article on average student math scores by country.

If you’re a college grad, take a minute to recall when you were choosing your major. For those of us with aspirations of making big bucks, studying to become a doctor, lawyer, or CEO are some of the more lucrative career paths that may have come to mind.

Well, what if I told you that back in the mid-1980’s at the University of North Carolina, the average starting salary of geography students was well over $100,000? Knowing that, would you have considered making a career change?

But what if I also told you that basketball great Michael Jordan—formerly the world’s highest paid athlete—graduated from UNC with a degree in geography? Now do you believe me?

Maybe the mean isn’t always a slam dunk.

In the case of Michael Jordan and fellow UNC geography graduates, the average is not a good representation of the true center of the data. Jordan’s earnings from his athletic career raises the ‘average’ salary for geography graduates in a way that doesn’t accurately convey what graduates are likely to earn. By almost any measure, Jordan’s earnings would be an outlier.

How could we have identified this anomaly, and potentially averted wishing we had chosen a different career path? (Geography, that is—not NBA superstar.)”

Michelle Paret goes on to enunciate three rules for dealing with such possible anomalies – read the rest here. And apologies from Antonio and the editor if we seem to be playing devil’s advocates!

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Michael Jeffrey Jordan (born February 17, 1963), also known by his initials, MJ, is an American former professional basketball player, entrepreneur, and principal owner and chairman of the Charlotte Hornets. He played 15 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards. His biography on the NBA website states, “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time” (Wikipedia: Michael Jordan). According to Forbes.com, Jordan currently has a net worth of $1 billion.

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Michael Jordan’s undergraduate academic record from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The transcript was auctioned off for nearly $19,000 at the 2014 Goldin Auctions (www.sportscollectorsdaily.com)