Americans, on average, like to think of themselves as average. As the wise C.J. Cregg put it on The West Wing: “This may come as a shock to you, but 80 percent of the people in this country would use the word ‘average’ to describe themselves. They do not find the term deprecating. Indeed, being considered an ‘average American’ is something they find to be positive and comforting.”
Now Nate Silver’s new endeavor, FiveThirtyEight.com, has taken the American appetite for normalcy and spun an advice column out of it: in response to bintel brief–type letters presenting quandaries, readers receive responses based, as is everything at FiveThirtyEight, on data. The results so far are mixed. Recently, Micah Cohen, a single 32-year-old, wrote in. He lives by himself, he wrote; was he normal? Columnist Mona Chalabi crunched the numbers and replied thus:
So, Micah, it turns out that living alone at your age is a rarity in America. But taking into account your gender, where you live and your education level, it seems you’re … well, you’re still not normal, but you are a little less abnormal.
What does knowing that he’s statistically “a little less abnormal” tell Cohen? How does it make him, or any reader, better off? In her introduction to the column, Chalabi writes, “I’m not a fan of advice columns in which the writer dispenses ‘you shoulds’ based on her experience. Instead, I’ll offer data to contextualize your experience.” But what “context” does this data really offer?
Averages can be contradictory and misleading. For instance, one of the smartest things that a young person can do, statistically speaking, is get married. (Listen up, Cohen.) Aside from the legal benefits, there are financial ones and health and psychological ones. But 60 percent of all marriages that take place when couples are 20–25 end up in divorce, so don’t get married until you’re 25+. On the other hand, don’t wait too long. Postponing marriage has serious consequences, especially if you want to have children. Get married, and then live, in a blue state, since “divorce rates are higher in religiously conservative ‘red’ states than ‘blue’ states, despite a Bible-based culture that discourages divorce.” (A blue state is virtually the only option for a same-sex marriage anyway.) Unfortunately, in a blue state, you may stay married, but you’ll be less happy.