how not to get facts get in the way of righteously angry clickbait

Clickbait punditry is selling a story about a study into male birth control whose participants wimped out. But that's not at all what happened...

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Recently, a study for one of the most promising male contraceptive shots was shut down after an ethics panel was alarmed that some men enrolled in it backed out due to severe mood swings and depression. Normally, when you have people dropping out of your study, those supervising it want to know if there’s a real concern to be investigated and what will happen in subsequent trials. But to British pundit Anna Rhodes, this shutdown means that the men in the study are wusses and the ethics board is staffed with sexists who think that side effects from hormonal birth control are fine for women, but not for men. Much like when Nancy Jo Sales wrote a viral story about the awfulness of Tinder, Rhodes clearly knew the story she wanted to write when she saw the press release and summed it up thusly…

Apparently women can have such ailments as depression and acne thrust upon them for the greater good of preventing an unwanted pregnancy, but the same level of discomfort cannot be expected of men.

Of course what the study found and why it stopped has little to do with any sexist attitudes, but Rhodes didn’t really seem interested in trying to find out whether her accusations has any basis in fact, she just wanted to write some incendiary gender wars clickbait. The collateral damage in this is, of course, the reputations of the researchers who never expected the shots to be in any way side-effect free and were in fact trying to find out whether the acne or depression were really the same as female hormonal birth control and if the side effects could be even better controlled. Biologically speaking, it’s really difficult to stop the male body from producing billions of sperm cells all day long and it tales a huge amount of testosterone and progesterone to trick the body into thinking that it produced its quota for the day.

In early trials, the men in the studies often experienced hair loss, significant weight gain, and severe clinical depression so often that the pharmaceutical companies trying to advance the research threw in the towel and relegated the research to medical non-profits. When the ethics board in this study got wind of men dropping out, they wanted to know exactly why to prevent yet another failure, and while 75% of subjects dismissed the side effects as mild and the shot proved 92% effective, the researchers need to figure out exactly what effect the hormones had on the subjects who dropped out, especially since testosterone injections like this were once linked to prostate cancer. But the problem was that they ran out of money to keep going, and find evidence-backed answers to the questions posed by the dropouts, as well as their findings about their formula’s long and short term efficacy.

And there’s definitely additional work to be done here. Five of the men did not see their sperm levels rebound over the course of a year, which is a really big problem if you want reversible male birth control. Some 17% reported mood disorders, possibly connected with their shot schedule that involved a boost in their testosterone levels, which helped regulate sperm production with the side effects of acne and increased libido, but would’ve also left them drained by the next shot, resulting in pretty wild mood swings when combined with progesterone. Now the investigators need funding to study why some of the men ended up with permanently low sperm counts, and figure out a shot schedule that will leave subjects with steady levels of hormones to keep on pushing forward, funding that comes from a very limited pool that competes with basic research for infectious diseases and vaccinations.

However, budgetary constraints don’t make for good outrage fodder while whiny men who can’t take the same side effects as women on birth control does, so that’s what Rhodes went with. The only question is whether what she did to distort the study’s findings was willful or she really believed that those scientists expected male birth control to be perfect and when a guy or two in the study complained about a bad day at work and a few pimples. The reality is that there’s demand for male birth control, huge strides have been made, the current formula is now over 90% effective by itself, but the effort required to shut down sperm production is very biologically intense, and a number of questions about long term safety and proper dosage schedules are still not the settled science they’re being presented by pundits like Rhodes. When the cash makes its way to the researchers, the studies will definitely resume.

# science // birth control / clickbait / health / punditry


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