CHARLIE MITCHELL: Statistics are fun, but have their limits

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – Eighty professional basketball players have come from Mississippi. Among the earliest was Cleveland Buckner from Yazoo City back in 1962. That’s trivia.
One in every 76,883 Mississippians plays in the NFL. Per capita, that ranks us second only to Louisiana. That’s a statistic.
For some reason (perhaps the name), people sense trivia is not essential information. Statistics can be just as fleeting, but people cling to them as having great importance. Perhaps this is because they contain numbers and the conventional wisdom is that “numbers don’t lie.”
In this state, especially, we’re sensitive to statistics. Almost every day some news person cites a statistic showing Mississippi first among the worst or last among the best. Collectively, we mourn our poverty, our disease rates, our obesity or our teen pregnancy rate. Collectively, it gives us one giant inferiority complex.
The press has a longstanding love affair with number-based rankings, including those that compare states or men and women or any group to any other group. Numbers feed our natural competitiveness. We use them to draw conclusions.
For instance, even the most uncoordinated among us might walk around with our chests puffed out based on the proportion of Mississippians who are professional athletes. We’re think this makes us tough, stronger (on average) than other folks.
There might be many other factors influencing the statistic, but we glob onto the most obvious, which is usually the most flattering. We have more churches than anyone, for example, which we take to mean there will be more Mississippians in heaven. Great writers come from Mississippi. Great musicians do, too. We take that to mean “we” are more talented than other people.
But it’s risky to use such statements or statistics to draw broad conclusions. As one saying goes, a person with one arm in the oven and the other in the freezer is, on average, comfortable in temperature terms.
Mississippi is 48th in many rankings including average teacher pay ($40,182), percentage of people 25 or older with at least a bachelor’s degree (25 percent) and doctors per capita. (North Dakota and South Dakota pay their teachers less; Arkansas and West Virginia are behind us in college degrees and Idaho and Oklahoma have fewer doctors per resident.)
California pays teachers, on average, a lot more ($63,640), but consider the cost of rents and median home prices (and the fact that Californians owe more in terms of state debt than many nations) and the numbers gain perspective.
Mississippi is in the middle when it comes to violent crime. We’re 33rd. Maine is the “safest” state and South Carolina is the “most dangerous.” That’s what statistics say, but the reality is crime is highly localized. Doubtless there are some places in Maine that are less safe than other places in South Carolina.
According to official government figures, Mississippians are 12th in per capita energy consumption. In today’s eco-sensitive world, someone might take that single ranking and make a speech containing all sorts of conclusions. Some might be valid, but others would be pure conjecture. (Alaskans are No. 1, and it’s no great mystery why. But Rhode Islanders use the least energy. What would explain that?)
The average annual pay in Mississippi is $32,291 compared to a national average of $44,458 and a New York average of $59,439. Granted, it would be better to be higher on the scale, but many factors are relevant – competition for jobs, housing and utility costs, tax rates and much more before conclusions can be drawn about quality of life.
There are seven Sam’s Clubs in Mississippi and 73 in Texas. We have 60 Walmart Supercenters and Walmart’s 24,264 employees in Mississippi are paid an average of $12.46 per hour.
Numbers.
They’re everywhere.
Beware those who offer them as “proof.”
But more specifically, we’d be well-advised not to dwell on them, to let them be the do all to end all directing our thoughts, opinions and actions.
After all, as my undertaker friend reminds me, the mortality rate for all Mississippians stands at 100 percent.
If we concentrate on that statistic, which is accurate, we’re not going to get much done.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.