Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Small, Small World of the New York Times

This Thanksgiving I spent in Brooklyn with a friend's family. They are a wonderfully conservative family, but they subscribe to the New York Times. My friend's father remarked that letters to the Times give him the sense that their writers have no news source outside the Times. That may be a slight exaggeration, but at least it's plain that they speak to few people outside a closed circle of Northeastern-type liberals.

The same remark can be made about the editors of the Times. In an editorial of that day, ("Family Planning Farce"), the editors lambaste President Bush's pick of Eric Keroack to head family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. They call him a doctor "nationally known for his wacky theory about reproductive health."

What are Dr. Keroack's "wacky" theories? One is the link between abortion and breast cancer (ABC). The Times is obviously blind to the overwhelming evidence supporting this connection. The study that supposedly definitively disproved the connection, actually proved it (or at least provided further evidence in support of it). Unfortunately the editors of the medical journal were afraid of political reprisals and wrote the summary article to give the idea that the study reached the opposite conclusion. Being good journalists, the Times (among so many other news sources) failed to probe deeper and took the summary at face value. And why would they probe deeper, when they got the answer they were looking for?

Other tenets of Dr. Keroack to which the Times objected:

[A Woman's Concern, the group Dr. Keroack led] has stated on its Web site that the distribution of contraceptive drugs or devices is “demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness.”


When speaking at abstinence conferences across the country, and in his writings, Dr. Keroack has promoted the novel argument that sex with multiple partners alters brain chemistry in a way that makes it harder for women to form bonding relationships. One of the researchers cited by Dr. Keroack [Dr. Rebecca Anne Turner1] has called the claim “complete pseudoscience” unsupported by her findings.

That contraceptives are degrading to women (insofar it severs a woman's connection to the ineffable mystery of bringing forth new human life, and opens her to being seen as only a pleasure machine to satisfy men) I'll leave to another time; the argument involves the purposes of human life and requires a discussion of the meaning of "degrading," both of which are beyond my current purpose.

But the second point, that having multiple sexual partners degrades a woman's ability to form permanent bonding relationships, is low-hanging fruit. Whether or not Dr. Turner's 1999 research supports Dr. Keroack's claim, it's hyperbolic to call the claim "complete pseudoscience." The debate centers on the role of the hormone oxytocin, which is called a "bonding hormone" because it stimulates in a woman a sense of togetherness with the person doing the stimulation (viz., a breast-feeding child or a sexual partner). Take for example this paragraph from the site (a far-from-morally-conservative site)2:

Premenopausal women sometimes become attached to a man with whom they have had sex, even if the man isn't good for them, because the sexually induced secretion of oxytocin encourages this binding. After menopause, intercourse does not result in an oxytocin surge, thus permitting women to make a more rationale [sic], and less instinctive, choice.


Women often assume that men desire sex just for the physical pleasure it provides. No doubt, that's sometimes all the man is after. However, I think that many men realize that intercourse can make the woman feel attached to the man. Longing for love, men may desire sex as a means of fostering a romantic bond.

Furthermore it is scientifically plausible that forming such bonds makes it more difficult to form future bonds. Let's ignore the obvious inference that being bonded to one person necessarily decreases the bond to another person, rather like a used piece of scotch tape has less stickiness. Restricting ourselves to "scientific" research, it is not pseudo-science to assert that exposure to oxytocin desensitizes cells to oxytocin (hormonal desensitization over time is not uncommon, as for example desensitization to dopamine from dopamine-stimulating drugs). Just a casual search of the web turns up a 2003 abstract in a peer-reviewed research journal containing this: "RESULTS: Pretreatment with oxytocin resulted in a decrease in the percentage of cells that responded to subsequent oxytocin exposure." The article is titled "Oxytocin-induced desensitization of the oxytocin receptor."

"Complete" implies that the claims are not only absolutely unsupported by any scientific research, but actually run counter to a large preponderance of such research. A less politically motivated response would have modestly said that Dr. Keroack's claims were unsupported by the cited research. Dr. Turner's "rebuttal" is empty rhetoric. If anything is pseudoscience in this whole incident, it is Dr. Turner's use of the phrase "complete pseudoscience."

Of course, people like the Times editors are so satisfied with easy answers that they simply repeat Dr. Turner's claim without scrutiny. As their lives, a claim that satisfies their preconceived notions remains unexamined.3

For me, the satisfying thing about reading such an intellectually insular publication like the Times is knowing that a group of people so misguided about something as basic as human bonding and procreation live not only in a small world, but perforce in a shrinking world.


1. I will refrain from dwelling on Dr. Turner's unfortunate initials.

2. Here are a few sites that discuss oxytocin:

3. Here are a few sites that lip-synch the Times's pablum as an opportunity to vent further self-righteous outrage at the Bush administration:

Christopher Robinson, Ralph Schumann, Peisheng Zhang, Roger C. Young, "Oxytocin-induced desensitization of the oxytocin receptor," American journal of obstetrics and gynecology 2003, vol. 188, no2, pp. 497-502.

Alan Wirzbicki and Bryan Bender, "Critics protest health post pick" Boston Globe, November 18, 2006.


cul said...

Thank you for the invitation to read your well written post.

I read the linked articles on you offered and have read some others over the last couple of years regarding oxytocin and its possible effects on the nature of bonding in humans. I have however to read anything which is definitive regarding the supposition that abortion alters brain activity in such a way that oxytocin production or its uptake by receptors is directly linked to bonding failures or more specifically as a cause of breast cancer.

My issue with the appointment of Eric Keroack is that it was done not so much on the basis of what speculative scientific knowledge he may possess, but rather politiccally motivated because of his evangelical moral stance, which makes him likely to be less than even handed about the policy suggestions he might offer, based on that speculative science.

By the by, I often agree with positions taken by the Times, but not always.

I plan to link to this post as a matter of balance. Again thanks for the invitation.

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks for your comments (and compliments).

I don't know who says there's a connection between abortion and oxytocin. The abortion-breast cancer link is via estradiol, estrogen, and related hormones. Oxytocin release is through sexual stimulation, as well as in nursing and labor. There are many papers about the ABC link on the web, particularly through the hyperlink in the post. As far as the connection between abortion and psychology, I recommend the Silent No More homepage.

I don't think you're position against bringing a moral stance to the position is self-consistent.
It is impossible to avoid bringing a moral framework to bear on policy, even policies regarding scientific topics. To refuse to choose is itself a choice. To eschew moral positions is itself a "moral" position (i.e., an ideological committment). Dr. Turner and the other critics have been gracious enough to provide a clear example of how such "moral objectivity" keeps people from objectivity.


Lawrence Gage said...

Looks like the PC mob has prevailed:

Controversial birth control official steps down

Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. John Agwunobi released a brief statement on Thursday saying that Keroack, who was appointed last November to oversee a $280 million program that provides birth control to poor women, had resigned.

"Yesterday, Dr. Eric Keroack alerted us to an action taken against him by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Office of Medicaid," Agwunobi said in a statement released late on Thursday. "As a result of this action, I accepted his resignation as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population Affairs."