It hardly seems suitable in the week of Weinergate to bring up the subject of . . . um, . . . sperm counts . . ., but hey, you have to follow the news as it breaks, as Breitbart might say. The New York Times science page today reports on new research that essentially says “never mind” about the popular environmental meme that male sperm counts have been falling sharply over the last few decades, the result, it was presumed, of environmental contamination of some kind. “In Update on Sperm, Data Show No Decline,” Times science writer Gina Kolata reports:
Are men becoming less fertile, with declining sperm counts and diminishing sperm quality? If they are, then sperm might be an early warning sign of environmental dangers. And the prime suspects have been substances like plastics and pesticides that can have weak estrogenlike effects on cells.
But now 15 years of data from 18-year-old Danish men taking their military physicals show no decline in sperm counts, after all. The idea that sperm counts were plummeting began with an alarming paper published in 1992 by a group of Danish researchers. Sperm counts, they reported, declined by 50 percent worldwide from 1938 to 1991, and the trend would continue, they said.
Many other researchers criticized the data’s quality, citing flaws like a lack of standardized methods of collecting semen, methodological issues in semen analysis, biases in the ways men were selected, and variations in the length of time men abstained from ejaculating before their semen was collected.
The study, said Dolores Lamb, a fertility expert at Baylor College of Medicine and president-elect of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, “was problematic and raised alarms in society without critical thinking about the caveats and weaknesses inherent in the data and its analysis.”
Nonetheless, the paper was highly influential. It was cited by 1,000 subsequent scientific papers.
Of course the study was “highly influential,” because it fit the narrative of environmental doomsayers, whose default position is always to accept an alarmist finding, no matter how thin or incomplete the evidence is. The story goes on to recount the weaknesses in the original research and the various critics of the original alarmist study. The critics were always ignored or shouted down by the alarmists or the “precautionary principle” types who argued that we needed to regulate more contamination threats right now because “we can’t take a chance,” etc. Remind you of any other particular issue? (Yes, this could be a multiple-choice question, with several right answers.)
Kudos to Gina Kolata for reporting this. For all the criticism the New York Times deserves, Kolata has reported frequently on contrarian health and environment stories that most of the other Emily Litellas in the media skip over because they don’t fit the narrative. Back in 2005 Kolata wrote a long feature entitled, “Environment and Cancer: The Links Are Elusive.” Kolata reported that “most scientists think that only a tiny fraction of cancers might be caused by low levels of environmental poisons,” and cited Dr. Richard Peto of Oxford University, co-author of one of the largest epidemiological studies of cancer in the early 1980s: “Pollution is not a major determinant of U.S. cancer rates.”