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The tyranny of averages

By Joe Lane - posted Friday, 21 November 2014

The average Australian is around 145 cm high, and weighs about 40 kg. At one end of the spectrum, a average new-born baby is around 55 cm long/tall, and weighs 3-4 kg, while at the other end, an average elderly person may be about 160 cm and weigh 70 kg. Averages conceal, they don't reveal.

Indigenous life-expectancy has risen, for men, by about a year in the last five. Indigenous infant mortality has been substantially reduced in the past five or ten years. But those two facets are not independent of each other: is it possible that Indigenous male life-expectancy has risen BECAUSE of the reduction in infant mortality ? That life-expectancy for Indigenous males over the age of, say, ten years is much the same – and in remote areas, may be getting worse, while life-expectancy over ten years is rapidly improving in the cities amongst working males ?

By the end of this year, a total of around thirty eight thousand Indigenous people will have graduated from universities across the country. Over the past ten years, suicide rates, particularly in remote settlements, have soared. But on average, things are about the same as they were ten and twenty years ago.


What's wrong with this picture ? Mass graduations at one end of an 'achievement' spectrum, and massively increased suicide rates at the other ? Is it possible that averaging conceals fundamental changes in Indigenous society, at both ends of that spectrum ? That two distinct populations – one oriented to education and work, the other to welfare, self-harm, addictions and (out of sheer boredom) petty crime – have more or less consciously, chosen two diverging trajectories, two opposed pathways ? And that citing 'average' figures completely obscures this ?

Beware of averages ! They conceal much more than they reveal. I'll bet that life-expectancy for Indigenous women in cities is far better than for women in remote settlements.

And I'll go out on a limb to suggest that, despite horrific suicide rates in remote settlements, there have been no suicides amongst Indigenous university graduates.

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About the Author

Joe Lane is an independent researcher with a long-standing passion for Indigenous involvement at universities and its potential for liberation. Originally from Sydney, he worked in Indigenous tertiary support systems from 1981 until the mid-90s and gained lifelong inspiration from his late wife Maria, a noted leader in SA Indigenous education.

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