The Design of Information

Information Design

This blog is focused on information design, the creation of infographics for visual understanding of complex processes, data and ideas.

The Flaw of Averages

Reading today in Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking, I came across this delightful extract from Francis Galton (half-cousin to Charles Darwin). It appears in the middle of a discussion about the difference between static and dynamic concepts.

“It is difficult to understand why statisticians commonly limit their inquiries to Averages, and do not revel in more comprehensive views. Their souls seem as dull to the charm of variety as that of the native of one of our flat English counties, whose retrospect of Switzerland was that, if its mountains could be thrown into its lakes, two nuisances would be got rid of at once.”

As Arnheim points out in the same chapter, there is an “attractive simplicity” in static concepts which can create tension with our human desire to comprehend more deeply and completely. I feel that tension and want both the simple, distilled understanding and the deep comprehension that comes from nuanced individual experience. I want both the forest *and* the trees.

Is that too much to ask?

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2 Responses to “The Flaw of Averages”

  1. December 13th, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Sam Savage says:

    I Enjoyed your blog, but you might want to reference my book on the Flaw of Averages (http://www.flawofaverages.com/). I coined this term in 2000 in the San Jose Mercury (http://www.stanford.edu/~savage/faculty/savage/Flaw%20of%20averages.pdf). I also published an article in the Harvard Business Review in 2002 (http://hbr.org/2002/11/the-flaw-of-averages/ar/1).

    The Strong Form of the Flaw of Averages states that “plans based on average assumptions are wrong on average.” This has been known as Jensen’s Inequality for over a hundred years, but with a name like that no wonder no one has heard of it. Last time I Googled “Jensen’s Inequality” (with quote marks) there were about 150,000 hits. “Flaw of Averages” had about 450,000 hits, but the latter search fluctuates from week to week.

  2. December 14th, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Erik Jacobsen says:

    Sam – glad to know of your work!

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