Every Friday my “Reality Check” syndicated column appears in a bunch of papers. Here’s today’s, inspired by something that happened to me on Facebook. I posted a link to a new study showing the benefits of marriage, and some single people took offense to it. I never meant it that way, but I think sometimes we misunderstand the uses of statistics. So read on!

Human beings, in general, hate statistics. It’s not just because we fear that 69.4% of stats are made up on the spot; it’s because whenever we hear that cigarette smoke causes lung cancer, we think of Uncle Jim Bob who smoked two packs every day of his life until he keeled over at 102 from a bad case of indigestion. Those researchers obviously don’t know what they’re talking about!

Well, yes. And no. Statistics are very good at telling us about the general. They tell us nothing at all about the specific. Whenever we hear that marriage, for instance, tends to make one happier, we think of our best friend who has become a mouse since her wedding because her husband berates her constantly. But just because you can think of an exception doesn’t invalidate the study.

Statistics are only supposed to point to trends, and those trends are real, so it’s worth listening to their warnings. Waiting until you’re 37 or 38 to start having children, for instance, can lead to a lot of heartbreak. It’s just harder to get pregnant in your late thirties than it is in your late twenties. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you; just that you should be aware of the risk, and decide accordingly. Similarly, studies tell us that staying married for the kids, even if you aren’t happy, is still better for the kids than if you split up. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that your particular kids will do better, or that you should stay with a serial adulterer. But ignoring the stats just because you don’t like them can be awfully stupid. I remember talking to someone close to me who was about to ditch her husband to move in with her lover. “What about your kids?” I asked. She laughed it off. “They’ll be fine. They’re good kids.” I would have none of it. “I was a good kid, too, and I wasn’t fine.” I wish in retrospect she had listened to me. Society would be much better off if more people heeded those warnings.

While studies should warn us, though, they don’t need to limit us. After all, if I lived my life solely according to statistics, I shouldn’t be happily married with two great kids and a good education. I should have married someone distant, if I married at all, and ended up with a lot more chaos in my life. Children who grow up without fathers tend to end up in worse shape than those who grow up with fathers, and girls who grow up with abusive or absent fathers tend to marry abusive or distant men. Learning these facts early helped me to make much better choices about whom I dated, knowing that I’d probably initially be drawn to the wrong people!

Statistics can warn us, then, but anybody can buck a trend. You can decide not to be a statistic. You can decide to be that high school dropout single mom who works hard to complete her education and succeed. You can be that child who grew up in an abusive home who chooses your spouse well and then works hard at making your family stay together. You can be the child of a teen mother who decides not to repeat the pattern.

So next time you hear a statistic that rubs you the wrong way, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Is there a warning in there for me? Should I change course?” And if you decide to plow ahead anyway, then at least you know the danger spots.

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