I love children. And on a good day I tolerate pets too. What I can’t love or tolerate is the way we use them in statistical models. For example, there is one cat at home, and I don’t go to church.
What’s the connection, you may ask. Here it is: Studies have shown that those who never set foot in a place of worship own two pets, while faithful worshippers have 1.4. Well, I don’t have two cats, so I should be going to church often, or occasionally, according to this study.
What’s worse is that those who do go, have 1.4 pets. I may not go to church – I admit this frankly – but what about those who keep 40 per cent of a cat as pet? And where do they choose from? Does a head and four paws make 40 per cent? Or the tail and whiskers? I am 40 per cent man enough to confess I am both confused and revolted by this. Why must statisticians put strange pictures in our minds that might keep us from having a good night’s rest?
I mean, 0.4th of a cat is a horrifying thought to take to bed.
But there’s worse. The typical American family, I read, once had 2.5 children, but more recently that has fallen to 1.9. Imagine half a child or one-ninth of one? What is wrong with you, statistical people? Can not even 5.36th of you think of the effect of such figures on the rest of mankind?
And how did the typical family with 2.5 children get rid of 0.6 children to get to the average figure? There are lies, damned lies and fractions, to rephrase an old cliché.
No wonder I hated fractions in school. Percentages were better five-sixths of the time, and looked more elegant too. Five out of four people, as the saying goes, had problems with fractions.
Half the time I didn’t know even a quarter of what it was all about. That sounds terrible. But if you said that fifty per cent of the time you misunderstood twenty-five per cent of things, that sounded classy, as if the percentages wore three-piece suits while the fractions lounged around in ill-fitting shorts and a torn T-shirt.
Tolstoy once said a man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction. It took me time to understand what he meant because I wasn’t sure if the numerator was the figure on top or bottom.
But that is possibly the only instance of a fraction sounding better than a percentage. A reminder too that Tolstoy is not easily translated.
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