Mark Twain is reputed to have said that, on average, a man with his head in the oven and his feet in a bucket of ice water is comfortable. Today, that aphorism is more worth heeding than ever. Everyone seems to be obsessed with numbers, but most people really fail to understand all the numbers they so blithely cite or follow.
For example, in Cedar City, in January the relative humidity is often over 70%. Sounds really humid, doesn’t it? It’s not. Not in the slightest. The average high temperature is 42 degrees Fahrenheit, the average low 17F, and the altitude is close to 6,000 feet. At those temperatures, the maximum amount of water the air can hold [at 100% relative humidity] is between 2 and 4 grams per kilogram of air, and with the higher altitude, that kilogram of air is larger than at sea level, which means the water vapor is even more diffuse. By comparison, on a mild spring day, at sea level, with the temperature at 70F, and a relative humidity of 50%, each kilogram of air would hold 8 grams. So 50% percent relative humidity at 70F means twice as much water vapor as 100% relative humidity at 42F. Of course, that’s why it’s called relative humidity, and why it doesn’t mean near as much in the winter as in the summer.
In terms of income, averages can be extremely deceptive. In 2014, the mean [or average] U.S. family income was $72,641. That doesn’t sound so bad, but the median [the midpoint income, with half the incomes above and half below] family income was $59,939. And neither the median nor the mean indicates that 15% of American families, or roughly forty-five million people, have incomes below the poverty level of $23,500 for a family of four or $11,770 for a single individual [before federal and state benefits], that 66% of all Americans earn less than $41,000, or that half of all income was earned by the 20% of families earning over $100,000.
EPA estimated mileage numbers are another case where it helps to know what’s behind the numbers. The EPA test protocol is based on the car model in question being driven at legal highway speeds 45% of the time and in city traffic 55% of the time. Virtually all cars get better mileage at highway speeds than in local traffic; so if you drive exclusively in the city and suburbs, your vehicle is almost never likely to reach the EPA estimated mileage figures. Nor will it reach those figures if you’re one of those drivers who drive at speeds in excess of 80 mph.
Another problem with numbers is that far too many organizations are so obsessed with quantifying performance that they insist on quantifying the unquantifiable. My wife the voice and opera professor faces this every year, and each year the quantification demands get stronger and the insistence on a wider range of objective performance data gets louder… and the accompanying paperwork gets more involved and more time-consuming. One of the basic problems with rating voice performance is that, to begin with, unless a singer can match pitch, sing on key, and in the proper tempo and rhythm, they fail. Above that basic level of performance, objective quantification becomes close to impossible. Beyond that level there are no objective standards that apply across the board. Some professional singers are limited to two octaves or so; some few can sing a range of four. How does one quantify the richness or timbre of a voice, or the phrasing, or the breathing? What about the occasional voices that are unique, that go beyond mere technique? But the educational mavens want numbers! The same is true of writing. I’ve seen a great deal of writing over the years that is grammatically correct… and terrible. I’ve seen great storytellers with terrible grammar. Objectively weighing writing through a set of rubrics or “objective” parameters is close to useless – except for weeding out those who can’t write at all.
So why are we so obsessed with numbers when it’s very clear, at least to me, that there are places for numbers and places where relying on numbers makes no sense?
One reason is because, as a society, we fear what we think is the “tyranny of subjectivity,” of relying on personal and professional judgment that can be warped by factors unrelated to the quality [or lack thereof] of what is being measured or judged. Numbers seem so much more “impartial.” The problem is that they can be just as biased in their own way… and very few people seem to realize that. Except Mark Twain, who also said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Yet we are swamped in a sea of statistics demanded by more and more institutions and organizations, and government bureaucracies who all seem to think that the numbers, and only the numbers, hold all the answers.