Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Trojan Horses

I want to thank an alert reader thrice: once for notifying me of a superb topic for today's post; second, for doing so via a web-site I will now closely follow; and third for prefacing the heads-up by saying that this issue is "complex": when I first read the article in question, I did not think it was complex at all, but after thinking about it for a moment, I agree completely with the reader.

The web-site is The authors of the web-site dutifully post all the published retractions in the scientific literature. How can I describe what they do? Maybe it's like watching an episode of COPS where all the scenes of police officers in sunglasses driving their squad cars and mumbling about how much they love their job are cut out and you're just left with the scenes of perps getting flung across the hood of the squad car or plucked from a chicken wire fence they're trying to scale, while semi-clad neighbours either hurl abuse at the shamed perp or at the police? I've never seen COPS, so maybe I'm wrong; maybe it's like a short video montage consisting only of the fight scenes in the Rocky films? Or really, it's like this.

In any case, they reported today on a retraction of an editorial in Surgery News, written by Lazar Greenfield, the editor-in-chief of Surgery News, the President-Elect of the American College of Surgeons, and the inventor of the Greenfield Filter. I implore you to read at the very least the editorial by Dr Greenfield, quoted in full in the retractionwatch post - and to read the article as well.

One of the legends of St. Valentine says that he was a priest arrested by Roman Emperor Claudius II for secretly performing marriages. Claudius wanted to enlarge his army and believed that married men did not make good soldiers, rather like Halsted’s feelings about surgical residents. But Valentine’s Day is about love, and if you remember a romantic gut feeling when you met your significant other, it might have a physiological basis.


As far as humans are concerned, you may think you know all about sexual signals, but you’d be surprised by new findings. It’s been known since the 1990s that heterosexual women living together synchronize their menstrual cycles because of pheromones, but when a study of lesbians showed that they do not synchronize, the researchers suspected that semen played a role. In fact, they found ingredients in semen that include mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%. Delivering these compounds into the richly vascularized vagina also turns out to have major salutary effects for the recipient. Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2002;31:289-93). Their better moods were not just a feature of promiscuity, because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence. The benefits of semen contact also were seen in fewer suicide attempts and better performance on cognition tests.

So there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.

Dr Greenfield muses about biological bases for romance, the physiology of attraction, desire, romantic attachment, and an odd psychosocial finding related to unprotected sex. He ended it with something that might be a joke.

I say "might be", because the alert reader notifying me about this topic pointed out that Greenfield's final line cuts both ways: were it not for the slightly flamboyant prose, it could simply be a conclusion to what has been argued; but the slightly flamboyant prose uses some of the hallmarks of wit and joking (connection of the incongruous, the creative imagery that condenses an argument into a scene played out for amusing effect). The alert reader keenly points out that if the line is read as a "serious point", retraction and resignation are hardly in order; but making a sick or offensive joke - if it is read as a joke - can justify retraction and resignation.

There's something wonderfully odd about this observation. If we are to treat the line as a "serious" conclusion written lightly, then it is, in scientific terms, a premature ejaculation, or, in less scientific terms, a misleading conclusion drawn from what is clearly very limited, preliminary and problematic study; therefore, remembering what we just said about when retraction and resignation would be in order: in a scientific journal, making a (serious) point that is fundamentally bad science would not be a sackable offence; making a facetious point that gives the reader a wink about the quality of the science and treats it as a subject for comedy is a sackable offence. How about that for some weird ambiguity stemming from the questionable use of comedy?

Now, let's think about the line for a minute. Chocolate, semen, Valetine's Day, husbands and wives. Surely these are the keywords for the next Will Ferrell movie. The good members of retractionwatch do a fine job of putting the line into editorial context. The editorial comes from an organisation's newspaper: these newspapers are big money-makers for the publisher, full of advertisements and job offers; most of the articles are updates on medical issues written by science journalists, interviews with and profiles of prominent people in the field, ethics columns, reports from advocacy groups and policy updates, letters about the poor quality of today's trainees because they've lost the art of medicine and don't live their lives in hospitals: in short, it's guild journalism. Greenfield could expect a little authorial leeway: he wasn't writing an editorial in a peer-reviewed, medline-indexed journal; he was writing for colleagues, in a newspaper that, if it's lucky, will quickly get recycled and, if not, will end up lining some rich surgeon's cat's litterbox. Should there be more editorial oversight? Who is ultimately responsible? Well, read retractionwatch's views and decide for yourself; but I would really highlight that the overall stakes for this newspaper's credibility are pretty low and Greenfield could expect in general to have an audience more forgiving of flights of fancy than when they open their copies of Circulation or The Journal of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery.

But there are some other issues.

Is the furore about such a line a signal of American discomfort with sex? Yes. No question about it. When it comes to sex, the United States is a country that has its head up its ass - and not in a good way. Last year, Bristol Palin made about as much money as a surgeon by working for a group that tries to dissuade teen pregnancy - I hope the inconsistencies and ironies, of which there are multiple, speak for themselves.

Now, let's get to the good stuff.

Is the line sexist? On one level, I am deeply unimpressed by the claims of misogyny made in the comments, and which presumably (?) underlie the decision to retract. Somewhat primed when I read the article, I expected to find myself uncomfortable with the last line for some slippage of overt sexism.

Those of us who have sat through beaming old fogeys giving speeches reminiscing about the past, making what they think are kind statements about gender relations and about how far women have come, cracking a few jokes that would have been out-of-date if they came out in black-and-white, know the wince. It's no fun. You want to be on their side, you know they're trying, but they just . . . don't . . . quite . . . get it. And when they make that sexist statement, you wince.

This didn't make me wince. In fact, the overt claim that there might be something physiologically beneficial in sperm and suggesting that women might get something positive from men for a change seems more than just harmless: it suggests reparation, repair, a real gift. And joking about this overt claim seems to be a way of taking the claim with a grain of salt while playing with it as something pleasant, something to enjoy. Insisting that male-female relations are always antagonistic, that the suggestion of beneficience or benefit is just another act of violence, that male sexuality is wholly selfish strikes me as prudish and malevolent.

On the other hand, let's think about this another way. It's terribly unfair on men to play a game of gender politics where if a man says something risqué about women he is necessarily being misogynistic, and the past 30 years have seen countless examples of men being chastised or otherwise marginalised for this; it's also terribly unfair on women that the past 30,000 years of gender politics have seen women treated as chattel, sexual objects, stripped of rights and dignity, and - you get the picture, right?

Let's be more specific. A man makes something that resembles a "wife joke"; the actual joke may not be horribly pejorative, but he's working in a genre that is burdened by a history of consistent, constant, mean-spirited vitriol directed against emancipation and dignity.

Dr Greenfield learned that it isn't only arsonists who get burned when they play with fire; and, by the way, if you're caught playing with fire, you've got to expect some people to think you're an arsonist.

Is the joke anti-gay? As I read the editorial, I wondered if anybody would get queasy about the issue of queerness, and someone in the comments did:

I agree that it’s the science more than the sex that is problematic, but the science does seem heterosexist. If this hypothesis were true, we’d expect to see very low rates of depression among gay men who have regular unprotected sex. Yet this does not appear to be the case.
Okay, so if you study men having intercourse with women, you're heterosexist? Heteronormativity is not just a misguided assumption that heterosexuality is normative; it's a practice of exclusion, of rendering people invisible, of ignoring them, or refusing to hear them. But I see no evidence that the decision to pick a population (men and women having sex with one another) is necessarily heterosexist, any more than a decision to pick a population that is mostly white is necessarily racist. It might be, but let's be careful about our assumptions, right? And I rather think a citation would be warranted for "this does not appear to be the case".

That having been said, the final line about a "deeper bond" forming when men innoculate women with a jet of anti-depressant love-juice does seem to forget, if only for a moment, in an article that started off with the non-heteronormative, inclusive term "significant others", that surely the exact same "deeper bond" can form between men. But what about the mention of the vagina as "richly vascularized" (which just happens to be my go-to description of vaginas)? You can take this two ways ("that's what she said"): you can see it as an explanation for how these psychotropic chemicals will escape the vagina and make their way to the brain (which is not a heterosexist assumption), or as a pre-emptive strike against the mouth and rump as equivalent receptacles - but then either is a very, very hazy claim. Remember, if you want somebody to absorb a drug like a benzodiazepene quickly, you can smear it in their mouth or insert per rectum. Perhaps a follow-up study should be a comparison between gargling ejaculate and come-enemas (or as I like to call them, cumemas)?

If you review the comments on retractionwatch, there are plenty of opinions about whether the line is funny or not, sexist or not, whether somebody should resign over it; there are some really excellent comments, and more than a few that just deserve eye-rolls, particularly when it comes to the question of how to read scientific articles (skilled readers of the scientific literature often spot weaknesses in the research; foolish readers of the scientific literature also often spot weaknesses in the research, but they don't understand how that research is being used and read and interpreted - they tend to think that everything is being treated as pure gospel truth, instead of being considered, contemplated, and contextualised: a musing editorial can refer to various findings without constantly tugging at the reader's elbow to explain how weak those findings are, because the editorialist trusts the readers to understand that this is musing, about weak findings).

Over the past few posts, we've dealt with the question of apologies and the issue of sick jokes. Should Greenfield have resigned and/or apologised; should the article be retracted; is it a joke at all, and how does it being comic effect how we make sense of what he's saying? I leave it to you to decide.

And now, if you'll excuse me, my cats are looking a bit down . . .

No comments: