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Articles of Interest

Math can resolve toilet-seat feuds

As published in the Aug. 30th issue of USA Today
By Paul R Marantz

The most hotly contested battlefield in the gender wars isn't the bedroom - it's the bathroom.

In endless letters to Ann Landers, jokes on late night talkshows and testy arguments at the dinner table, the seat-up-vs.-seat-down debate has raged. Families all across the USA consider it further proof of the gulf between men and women - and consider the very fact that it's even a matter of debate a sign of male insensitivity and overall cloddishness.

But I think there's more to this argument than meets the eye. I think it's proof of society's willingness to accept old adages without submitting them to scientific scrutiny.

Scientific scrutiny is what I do for a living as a professor of epidemiology (population-based medicine) and statistics. So, after I heard once too often that men should be putting the seat down whenever we left the bathroom - it's a matter of common courtesy, women kept saying - I decided to apply some statistical anallysis to the up-vs.-down debate.

Here's how I figured it: Say you have a typical mixed-sex household, with as many males as females. Let's presume that when A male uses the toilet, he needs the seat down about one time out of five. A female, in my model, always needs the seat to be down.

First, let's look at the approach favored by so many women: Leave the seat down. If that's the rule, given the previous assumptions, the seat will be in the correct position 100% of the time for women, but only 20% of the time for the man.

Is this fair?

As a male, I feel compelled to ask - Is this fair? What if the rule in the household isn't "leave the seat down" but rather "leave the seat as you left it"? In that case, the woman would find the seat properly positioned 60% of the time; the man, 44% of the time. Clearly, this is a far more equitable situation.

The assumptions may not be completely correct, of course. But they give a ballpark estimate that is convincing - especially given the fact that as the number of uses per day increases, the inequity of the "seat down" approach increases, and the "leave the seat as you left it" approach comes closer to 50-50.

There are very few things in life that are absoloutes, but this one is clear: Leaving the seat down is patently unfair to men; leaving the seat where it is when your done still favors women, but it's at least fairer to the unfair sex.

Some may say I'm ignoring the fact that an unsuspecting woman may actually fail to notice the position of the seat and unwittingly place her bottom directly on the porcelain. Certainly, this is undesirable, but I have a simple solution to prevent this from happening: Look before you sit!

Hard, cold facts

My challenge of this "rule" will no doubt be viewed by some as chauvinistic. Sure, I've provided a "rational", "mathematical" answer to this problem - but isn't that just like a man to think that cold, hard calculations can answer such a significant relationship problem?

Yes, this whole thing does seem a bit silly. But it's emblematic of a wider issue: The resistance of passionate argument to rational thought. Not all problems are amenable to such clear, straightforward solutions. But most the time, a little unbiased reflection can at least allow the most important points to be laid out and can help decisions be made according to their actual probabilities and consequences.

How can we hope to make rational decisions about the complicated public health issues that really matter - how much salt people should eat, what age women should start getting mammograms, or whether we should ban cell phones - if we can't even speak clearly about toilet seats?

Paul R Marantz, M.D., is a professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.