Laurie Toby Edison

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Dick Size Wars in a New Context?

Debbie says:

Laurie and I are contemplating a serious post on masculinity within the next week, but meanwhile, I found

this completely irresistible:

A researcher in Finland has uncovered a strong negative correlation between average penis size of the men in a country and that country’s economic growth between 1960 and 1985. Yes, that’s right: if the men have smaller dicks, the country is doing better.

chart of penis sizes and economic growth measures

If you don’t know how to read charts like this one (called “scatterplots”), the dots represent average penis sizes in various countries (we’ll get to what data he used) and the line represents an average for all the dots on one vertical line. So as the penis sizes go up from left to right, the economic growth measures go down, which is why the line moves downward from left to right. If the correlation was “positive,” meaning that larger penis sizes linked to greater economic growth, the line would move up from left to right.

The first thing any statistics course will teach you is that correlation is not causation. I might be able to draw a correlation between number of households in my city (Oakland) who have chickens in their back yard and number of rainstorms this year, and even if I got a clearcut measure like this one, it wouldn’t mean that chickens cause or prevent rain. So the whole thing is pretty silly from the start. This is how the Freakonomics guys do their work, and why it doesn’t mean much.

That being said, it isn’t quite junk science. The research was done by Tatu Westling at the University of Helsinki. My first concern was that the whole thing was just a joke, which it doesn’t appear to be. My second concern was that he had measurements on two or three penises per country (each dot on the chart is a country, so I could see that he was claiming to represent a lot of countries). It turns out that he used a well-known and reputable data set (though I have no idea why that data set includes penis size) that covers 121 countries. His economic data also looks respectable to me.

Westling obviously has a sense of humor. The paper is worth reading for lines like “”the statistical endurance of the male organ is also found very formidable” and “Taken at face value the findings suggest that the “male organ hypothesis” presented here is quite penetrating an argument.” Not to mention the paper’s last line: “It does seem like the ‘private sector’ deserves more credit for economic development than is typically acknowledged.” He makes some not-very-convincing attempts to come up with potential reasons for his findings–but since it’s almost certainly a coincidental correlation, they feel like window-dressing, not a serious attempt to draw conclusions.

For myself, I’m just charmed by the idea of men all over the world whipping out their dicks and worrying about whether or not they’re too big. It would certainly be more amusing (and possibly more fruitful) than the dick-size wars going on in Washington and Brussels right now.

4 Responses to “Dick Size Wars in a New Context?”

  1. David Goldfarb Says:

    I would think it plausible that the correlation might go the other way: countries with better-developed economies have more chemicals in their environment, some of which might affect male development, causing penises to be smaller.

  2. Debbie Says:

    @David: whatever else I believe about this research, the statistics do look good.

  3. Adrian Says:

    The statistics “do look good” in the sense that there’s a strong correlation. The study is almost certainly based on this pattern jumping out when Westling was fooling around with his new statistical software to see what it did with randomly chosen old sets of data.

    At the bottom of page 4, the study says, “Large part of the data are self-reported, and others are from health authorities.” (It is not clear whether data from health authorities is based on a penis being measured BY a health care professional, or a man filling out a form with his age, height, penis length, etc, and giving it to a medical researcher.)

    Men in different cultures experience somewhat different pressures to lie about penis size. Where this pressure is very strong, I expect it would even make doctors hesitate to write down a number that looked embarrassingly low. (“Well, of course you’re not fully erect, with me looking at you…how long is it, usually?”) I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a cultural tendency for macho exaggeration had a meaningful connection with the economy–for anatomically similar groups.

  4. Adrian Says:

    I agree with David that endocrine disruptors in modern agricultural chemicals can affect penis size. Unfortunately, people in less developed countries get an awful lot of exposure to those pollutants. It’s the general problem of people with less economic or political power getting stuck with more dangerous stuff. Trace exposure through food and finished goods isn’t great, but it’s not nearly as bad as working with gallons of the stuff with your bare hands, or living next to an unregulated factory.

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