Life is seldom binary

I think about bell curves. A lot. (Ask my wife.) A quick refresher for anyone who hasn’t taken a statistics class recently:

When data are normally distributed, plotting them on a graph results in an image that is bell-shaped and symmetrical…. In such a distribution of data, the mean, median, and mode are all the same value, and coincide with the peak of the curve.

The normal distribution is also often called the bell curve because of its shape.

However, a normal distribution is more of a theoretical ideal than a common reality in social science.

Ashley Crossman, “What is Normal Distribution“,

A bell curve looks like this:

In a normal distribution of data, slightly over 68 percent of the data points fall within one standard deviation of the mean. Another 27 percent or so fall within two standard deviations, and so on. Not very many data points are beyond two standard deviations, a bit more than two percent on each extreme.

Now, most populations of data aren’t quite this neat. But as Ashley Crossman notes in her ThoughtCo article quoted above, certain types of data do tend to produce a bell curve consistently (assuming a significant enough sample size), including “standardized test scores such as the SAT, ACT, and GRE…, [h]eight, athletic ability, and numerous social and political attitudes of a given population….”

The reason that matters is that many human factors that we tend to think of as binary, including political beliefs, gender, intelligence, sexual orientation, and so on, are actually more like a continuum of data points – probably not a perfectly normal distribution, but something resembling a bell curve.

This means, to me, that each of us is an individual data point on each of these curves. I may be somewhat to the left of the center politically, but I can’t be simply grouped into the “Democratic” or “progressive” binary group. I am genetically male, but I’m not identical in my maleness to every other “male” in that binary group.

It’s simpler, of course, to group people’s abilities and social attitudes into binary bins: liberal or conservative; smart or dumb; gay or straight; religious or non-believer; athletic or couch potato. It’s much more complex to consider where on the spectrum an individual is, and how similar – or different – they are than you in terms of scale. Once I determine that you’re in the other binary camp, it’s easy for me to reject you because you’re just wrong. Harder to do if it turns out we don’t completely agree but we’re closer than it initially seemed.

Many of today’s politicians and much of the most partisan media outlets are depending on us to see the world as a place where each of us is clearly defined as “this” or “that,” with no room for gray area. But the gray area is where compromise happens, where progress happens, where hope happens.

Take some time to think about where you are on the curve. You may be surprised at who’s standing near you.