Gnat’s Eyelash

It’s funny what we choose to remember. For most, memory is selective. Some stuff sticks and other stuff doesn’t.

An accusation directed toward men, for instance, is not just the selectivity of their memory. It’s that, plus the length at which they hold certain ones and their remarkable ability to call those memories forward, giving them voice at precisely the time least helpful in romantic relationships. During arguments, for instance.

Mr. Bishop was the seventh-grade biology teacher. Fletcher Bishop. Kind of an aristocratic first name. The last, probably a reference to either chess or church, the wise beginning high schoolers doubtless hypothesized. Even though they had no idea what a hypothesis was.

Slender, dapper and stylish, as I recall, he was one of those teachers who would wink. Back then, winking was still a thing people did. The wink was intended to signify: “I’m being facetious for sake of humor and letting you in the audience in on the joke.”

Somewhere along the line, as we stood by slate-top lab stations, surrounded by beakers and other Pyrex not typically found in suburban kitchens, Mr. Fletcher introduced the expression “gnat’s eyelash.”

Who knows today why.

Doesn’t matter. It stuck. Lodged permanently in my head. Though, sadly, little else about biology managed to.

Years later, though, it came in handy. A college-level course in quantitative research methods – dreaded by most and anxiety-producing for all – called for, maybe demanded, its application.

Students are exposed to the concept of statistical significance in the course. They computed no statistics, but did need to understand what people who can perform such functions mean when they write the study’s findings were significant. Statistically significant.

Social scientists use the point-oh-five (.05) level for determining statistical significance. Results below that number are deemed significant and above that number are statistically nonsignificant.

When it came time to introduce the concept, typically much later in the course, an opportunity for a certain level of discipline was introduced. Discipline being a rare feature of the humanities where interpretations, feelings and other impressionistic manners are privileged.

As a way to illustrate scientific discipline, coupled with the notion of statistical significance, I would write on the board two numbers: .051 and .049 .

“What’s the difference between them,” I would ask the class. At which point, some would begin taking off their socks. Long pause. Nothing. Not a peep.

These were, after all, liberal arts students unaccustomed to being told they were wrong. But most assuredly, they knew this much: math and arithmetic were two areas where one could be wrong, regardless of one’s feelings about any given subject.

“Well,” I’d say, “you can tell that one number is significant and the other is statistically nonsignificant, right?” Continuing, “and you know which is which, correct?”

It was as though I was teaching monks who had taken vows of silence.

“So, what’s the difference between them besides that?”

Finally, patience or endurance wearing thin, I’d say: “A gnat’s eyelash.”

Makes all the difference in the world.

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