Tuesday, 05 June, 2001

Average What?

I sometimes wonder if news reporters think about what they're saying.  For example, when Ann Taylor of NPR's All Things Considered gives the stock market report, she will sometimes say "The price of an average share increased by one dollar."  The problem is that there's no such thing as an average share.  What she means is that the average price per share increased by one dollar.  This "average syndrome," as I call it is not limited to stock marked reports.  I often hear about the "average person" who weighs 182.34 pounds.  I've yet to meet one of those average people who meets all of the qualities assigned to him.  It's quite a different thing to say "The average American drinks 2.3 cans of soda per day," rather than "On average, Americans drink 2.3 cans of soda per day."

I can usually figure out what's meant when somebody falls into the average trap.  It's harder (sometimes impossible) to figure out the meaning of the phrase "two times faster."  Some people use that term to mean "twice as fast," which isn't correct.  100 MPH is twice as fast as 50 MPH.  150 MPH is two times faster.  This gets even more ambiguous when people use percentages.  Some say "50 percent faster" to mean "50 percent less time."  But in order to cover the same distance in 50 percent less time, you have to travel 100 percent faster (twice as fast).  Both usages of "faster" are correct in certain contexts, but it's sometimes hard to determine context.  And all too often I hear of a process that takes half the time as another described as being "100 percent faster."  In the context of elapsed time, "100 percent faster" would mean that it takes no time at all.  Is it any wonder I'm often confused by news reports?