I have been, very kindly and probably against people’s better judgement, allowed to audit a few classes of a programme on Quantitative Analysis, quant. an. being a part of the work I am expected to do. For those not acquainted with Quant. Methods classes for the social sciences: They begin with a dull, reassuring rehash of high-school statistics, so one can sit back, sigh at the memories, and let the brain function on autopilot, conserving bewilderment and grit for future modules.
Sometimes, however, the instructor tosses out a sentence that yanks back even the most dedicated wandering minds (I’m sure they do it on purpose, the brutes), and last class, I felt a sudden kick in my metaphorical shins, as it were, when I heard our instructor conclude, “… IQ is indeed positively correlated with shoe size”.
This was an outrageous statement, even by my standards, so I concluded — with remarkable speed and accuracy, I think — that what I thought a statement was probably a question. Half of the class that I could see was slowly focusing their eyes and coming to the same conclusions.
“No?” ventured a girl to my right.
“No what?” riposted the teacher, looking, I thought, just the tiniest bit pleased with himself.
“No, er, not positively correlated?”
“Negatively correlated?” asked the teacher, with the perfectly innocent look that is bait to many a hook.
“NOT correlated”, chorused two girls from the back, rising to it rather inadvisedly.
“Prove it!” said the teacher, triumphantly.
We hastily bent over our notes, which had been dictated by our ears to our fingers, without, as it were, detouring through our brains. Suddenly, a confident male voice said, from right over my shoulder, “They ARE positively correlated”.
The teacher looked taken aback. He hadn’t expected a doubling-back. “And how can we say that?”, he asked, brows scrunching.
“The data clearly shows it. YOU said the data shows a positive correlation”, said the voice, its tone hinting at betrayal on the faculty front.
The girl next to me sighed. “Variables can show simultaneous changes without actually being influenced by each other, that is the point of this test”, she said (with, I thought, rather pointed patience).
“Yes, I mean, sometimes you can tell by simple common sense, isn’t it, that two variables are independent of each other?” asked the teacher, glad someone was paying attention.
“So in this case common sense shows there is positive correlation”, said the male voice doggedly. “Bigger shoe size means bigger heads, means more brains, means greater IQ”.
“Uh”, said the teacher, prevented by modern pedagogy from speaking his mind. “Well… I mean…”, and then he gave in to the easy way. “You are, of course, right, but when independent…”
“No he’s not”, said a girl from the first row sharply. “He is not right, and to say he is right would be encouraging a sexist hypothesis”.
The teacher, chalk poised, looked absolutely blank. “Sexist?”, he said, “How did gender get into this?”
“In absolute terms, men’s feet will always be larger than women’s feet. That doesn’t mean all women are stupider than men”.
“That is not what he…” began the teacher.
“But they are“, said the male voice, cutting him off.
After a brief silence, the teacher dragged the discussion back to the data sets, telling us not to waste valuable time on ‘other things’. The whole class was now wide awake and listening with razor sharp attention, but not, I think, because statistics had become fascinating over the minute. There was an undercurrent of suppressed outrage and quiet seething that made slipping back into stupor impossible.
That evening, I was telling the story, with great aplomb, to a mixed group of acquaintances. “I like those girls, I really do”, I said, “but this “I’m a victim, watch me whine!” hysteric is bloody embarrassing. That boy was far too stupid — or deliberately provocative, who knows? — to have merited the attention he managed to get. It all boils down to shrilly, thin-skinned insecurity — something I can do well without”.
“Well, that’s modern girls for you”, said one of the group. “Give them their freedom, and they’ll turn around and claw your eyes out”.
“What?” I said.
“It’s true”, the group’s smoker nodded, from near the window. “They can’t fight you with brains or talent, so they’ll fight you with screeches and bitching and tears”.
“This is why I am not a feminist”, confided the girl closest to me.
“Why aren’t you?”, I asked, because it was not at all clear to me what ‘this’ was.
“Well, this“, she expanded, throwing her arms wide in front of her. “You know, people like your friends. Women who have all the freedom they need, but are always shouting and demanding and making a scene. Like you said, it’s very embarrassing”.
“That is not what I said”, I bit out, glaring.
“I’m sorry, we’re being tactless”, she said hastily, gesturing at her friends to shut up. Then she playfully patted me on the shoulder, “But you started it!”
“Yeah, seriously man, when you feel uncomfortable with these shrews, you should just say it”, advised the smoker.
“Scream, demand, and make a scene?” I enquired politely.
“Yeah”, he said, without a trace of irony. “Don’t let them get to you”.
There is a lesson in this story. Unfortunately, I think the lesson is for me.