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Numbers and Averages

We human beings do love numbers, limits, and averages.

I first realized this when I had two students drop a class. Two students had dropped in a class the prior semester. On average, two students drop from each class each semester. I also have 1-2 students flame out by the end of the semester. It's a regrettable statistic, but it keeps proving to be true.

Similarly, I see parents trying to get their babies to finish the whole bottle of milk. Why? Why the whole bottle? The baby knows full and not full, and that's it. Why not let the baby be in charge? But we like to see the limit hit, and we feel better if the baby takes the whole bottle. The irony is that the nursing mother can't really tell how much the baby eats, beyond an estimate, as the flow is not measured. A mother once told me that she stopped nursing because she liked seeing how much formula the baby was taking in.

Changing the anecdote, tomatoes are graded on color and size, but not flavor. Flavor is harder (since you have to cut the tomato to really know how good it is), and flavor is uncertain until you try it. So we grade tomatoes not on flavor, which is what we really care about, but color and size, which are measurable. And, thus, grocery store tomatoes are like cardboard.

Numbers rule our lives, and managers continue to focus on numbers. The only thing that matters is something quantifiable, since that can go on an Excel spreadsheet and a PowerPoint graph. So we get hit by so many offers to take a "quick survey" from stores and phone calls, and even hospitals. Everyone wants a number so it can be measured and compared.


But the humanities, and theology especially, have held that human life is more than numbers and averages. While Plato and other philosophers pined for an epistemological certainty that would be like mathematical certainty, they didn't want to reduce human life to numbers and averages. Being reduced to a statistic is incredibly depressing.

We as humans love numbers and hate them, for they restrict and fail to tell the whole story, and yet they give us comfort and clarity. As our culture becomes more statistic driven, we will likely be both comforted and tormented, as the lines around what works and what doesn't will become clearer, but we will be tormented by being constantly reduced to a number.

Experience helps

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