One morning last week, while we were eating breakfast, my roommate asked me to hold up my hand. I asked him why, but he said, "Just do it." I obliged and then he held up his, too.
"Interesting …" he concluded, then continued eating.
"I was comparing our sizes." He smirked, then told me about a study he'd seen on the Internet the night before.
They used to say that big hands equals - wait for it - big gloves. But now we know, or so South Korean scientists claimed to explain this month in the Asian Journal of Andrology, that it is more complicated than that. Apparently, the shorter your index finger is compared to your ring finger - what they call a 2D:4D ratio - the longer your other limb relative to other guys'.
Headlines declaring this apparent scientific breakthrough - or perhaps we should call it the "news of the world" - appeared widely across the Web, from The New York Times to Time Magazine to Mens' Health, and more.
The question that came first to my mind, though - after I examined my own hand, of course - was: Besides feeding or hurting our respective egos, why should we care?
My roommate had an answer to that, though admittedly one probably more relevant to a science-fiction plot: "Maybe if the Korean scientists would tell us the effect of size on behaviour, we could adjust testosterone levels in the womb to make everyone bigger or smaller," he suggested. (T-levels are supposedly the thing that those two fingers and penis length have in common.) "That might help to make the world a better place."
In an earnest search of such evidence, I contacted Harvard urologist Abraham Morgentaler, who has studied male reproductive and sexual health for 30 years. I asked him if, for instance, men with smaller penises - or men who were more insecure about their size - were more aggressive.
"It's an interesting question, but I'm not aware of anything like that," he wrote in an e-mail. "We certainly recognize the Napoleon syndrome, in which some men of shorter stature have a tendency to act overbearing, but is penis length the same thing? I don't think so."
Discouraged, but unwilling to abandon hope, I searched Google for infamous men of small size. The results were minuscule - I only found one case. According to Bernie Madoff's former mistress, the man who attempted to amass the largest bank account of any man was so concerned about his lack of size that he forewarned her of it. "It clearly caused him great angst," she wrote in her memoir. I wondered: Could Madoff's subjective view from the top (of his body) have influenced his rising levels of greed?
It's a stretch; one man is certainly not a good measure of mankind. Plus, the matter is also complicated by the fact that Madoff's mistress also said he was the most generous and excellent lover she'd ever had.
But while he couldn't say that penis size has any real impact on society at large, Dr. Morgentaler did feel our culture's focus on size might be fuelling, an, um, rising insecurity.
"There is a lot of pressure on men these days," Dr. Morgentaler wrote. "There's so many ads for Viagra and Cialis, so many 'manly' supplements for sale, and incredible ease of viewing of porn on the Internet. A lot of men compare themselves to the guys doing porn and feel inadequate, not realizing that most of the men in the movies are selected because they are unusually large."
Dr. Morgentaler added that the majority of men who come to him expressing interest in penile-lengthening surgery are average or even above-average in size.
In this light, the South Korean study that made prolific headlines in the media is a kind of pornography in itself. On his Psychology Today blog, author and sex educator Paul Joannides presented and analyzed the data from the study and found that its findings only applied to a tiny fraction of the subjects.
"If you take out the two guys with the largest penises and the one guy with the smallest, the rest show no correlation," he told me. "So for 95 per cent of the guys in the study, you can't tell anything."
Dr. Joannides explained that finger ratios have been studied in search of other - and, I should add, more important - correlations, such as a susceptibility to prostate cancer.
"There's no question we're going to find out that androgens bathing the fetus during pregnancy will have some effects, but how much is still up for discussion. There's still just too little known about it and too little science has been done with humans," he said. "I don't see the purpose of publishing [the South Korean study]story other than pure sensationalism. This line of research is not ready for the media. Come back in five years."
So, without any substantial answers, we might ask one more question: Will audience-hungry news sites be able to wait five years before running more salacious headlines on the topic?
As I wrote that last sentence, another study came to light - one from Helsinki showing that countries whose men had a small average penis size between 1960 and 1985 have a higher gross national product. So, no - I think five years is too long.
Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks.Report Typo/Error