A snowball’s chance… where?


Remember when Goldilocks sampled the porridge in the three bear’s cottage? One was too hot, another too cold, but baby bear’s was just right. Well, when it comes right down to it, I think I am pretty well a just-right-baby-bear kind of person. In fact, until recently, I figured we all were… But, as it usually turns out when I declare my allegiance to one side or the other, I’ve just discovered I made the wrong choice. Again.

I mean, it just makes sense to split the difference, eh? Try to choose the middle of the Bell curve so you’ll have room to maneuver if -or in my case, when– you back the wrong horse. From the middle, you can always say you were actually leaning towards the winning side -which you can’t from across the room. I learned that as a child who was owned by a railroad family which moved every year or so to a different part of Canada.

When we lived in the Prairies, I tried to pretend I liked the cold, but apart from throwing snowballs at passing busses, or hurling myself down snowdrifts on a piece of cardboard, I actually hated winter -it was far too cold. And on each blizzard-filled journey to and from the neighbourhood school -we were expected to walk in those days, not be driven- I was bundled up in so many layers, and my face shrouded by a scarf wrapped around it a hundred times, I would sometimes trundle off in the wrong direction until my mother ran out to point me another way. I was quite young then, of course, and each time I hoped she was coming to tell me school had been cancelled; I soon realized that in Winnipeg, they only cancelled classes if one of the rivers flooded.

The summers were not much better there -but they were even worse in the parts of Ontario where we ended up on our next several migrations. Put simply, even if you discounted the mosquitoes, the black flies, and pollen, and were careful not to step on snakes, or wander through poison ivy, or for that matter, follow the dog through the bush and end up having your mother pull ticks off your arms and legs when you got home, it was far too hot. Far too muggy. We couldn’t have afforded an air conditioner in those days -even if they had been invented- so I had to fight my brother to sit directly in front of the household’s only fan; and never behind him, because, well, my brother smelled like a gym-bag when he perspired.

But, I had always felt there was a credible argument for compromise. And, let’s face it, with temperature, it’s probably easier to don a coat or a sweater if it’s a little chilly, than to start stripping down if it’s too hot. I mean, I know you can’t please everybody, but I always thought that my compromises could stand the rough and tumble of any contrarian opinion. Until, that is, I bumped into the article in the Smithsonian Magazine that reported on a study published in PLOS One by researchers Tom Chang and Agne Kajackaite: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/chilly-rooms-may-cool-womens-productivity-180972279

Their work suggested that ‘cold temperatures can negatively impact women’s cognitive performance.’ It would seem that ‘Temperature systems in many modern offices follow a decades-old model based on the resting metabolic rate of an “average male,” which is typically faster than a woman’s metabolic rate. Faster metabolisms also generate more body heat, which in turn means that women are often left shivering in the workplace.’

Now, we’re not talking Antarctic conditions in the room, or anything, and the performance differences measured were not Trump-resigns-under-pressure headlines, for sure, but nevertheless differences there were: ‘An increase in temperature of just 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit was associated with a 1.76 percent increase in the number of math questions that female participants answered correctly—which may not seem like a lot, but it is nearly half of the four percent performance gap that exists between male and female high school students on the math section of the SAT … Increasing the temperature by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit also boosted women’s performance on the verbal task by around one percent. Men, on the other hand, performed more poorly on the math and verbal tests in warmer temperatures.’

But wait a minute here. ‘[W]omen’s enhanced cognitive performance in warmer environments seemed to be driven by the fact that they were answering more of the test questions; the dip in male cognitive performance, on the other hand, was linked to a decrease in the number of questions answered.’ Uhmm… Isn’t that a little like equating absence of evidence with evidence of absence? (I always enjoy using that aphorism whenever I can fit it in.)

Anyway, I have no reason question the results and I have to say I was further softened by one author’s explanation that ‘the students might simply have felt better, which in turn prompted them to exert more effort.’ Fair enough -that’s something a Winnipeg kid would understand -it’s hard to concentrate with a scarf wrapped around your face, or wherever.

There may be a little more work to do in resolving the so-called ‘battle of the thermostat’, however.  ‘[T]he pool of participants [543 students from universities in Berlin], though large, was made up solely of college students. The research is, in other words, not representative of the age and education level of the general population.’ Still, ‘the study suggests that dismantling the “thermostat patriarchy” is about more than fostering women’s comfort—it’s also a question of productivity.’

Too bad they couldn’t have done a study like that during a Winnipeg blizzard when I was young and wrapped. But then again, the sample studied -male or female- would have been horribly biased: only those of us who actually made it to school would have survived to take the test. And, who knows anything about those whose mother’s weren’t watching the direction their little tykes were pointed when they left the safety of the house? Could we use the ‘evidence of absence’ thing again…?

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