How a Valentine’s Editorial about Chocolate & Semen Lead to the Resignation of Top Surgeon Greenfield

27 04 2011
Children's Valentine in somewhat questionable ...

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Dr. Lazar Greenfield, recently won the election as the new President of  ACS (American College of Surgeons). This position would crown his achievements. For Greenfield was a truly pre-eminent surgeon. He is best known for his development of an intracaval filter bearing his name. This device probably has saved many lives by preventing blood clots from going into the lungs. He has been highly productive having authored more than 360 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals, 128 book chapters as well as 2 textbooks.

Greenfield also happened to have a minor side job as the editor-in-chief of Elsevier’s Surgery News. Surgery News is not a peer-reviewed journal, but what Greenfield later defines as a monthly throw-away newspaper (of the kind Elsevier produces a lot).

As an-editor-in chief Greenfield wrote open editorials (opinion pieces) for Surgery News. He found a very suitable theme for the February issue: Valentine’s day.

Valentine’s Day is about love, and the editorial was about romantic gut feeling possibly having a physiological basis. In other words, the world of  sexual chemical signals that give you butterflies-feelings. The editorial jumps from mating preferences of fruit flies, stressed female rotifers turning into males and synchronization of menstrual cycles of women who live together, to a study suggesting that “exposure” to semen makes female college students less depressed. All 4 topics are based on scientific research, published in peer review papers.

Valentines Day asks for giving this “scientific” story a twist, so he concludes the editorial as follows:

“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.”

Now, everybody knows that that conclusion ain’t supported by the data.
This would have required at least a double-blind randomized trial, comparing the mood-enhancing effects of chocolate compared to …….  (yikes!).

Just joking, of course…., similar as dear Lazar was trying to be funny….

No, the editorial wasn’t particularly funny.

And somehow it isn’t pleasant to think of a man’s love fluid wrapped in a ribbon and a box with hearts, while you expect some chocolates. Furthermore it suggests that sperm is something a man just gives/donates/injects, not a resultant of mutual love.

However this was the opposite of what Greenfield had in mind:

The biochemical properties of semen that were reviewed have been documented in peer-reviewed journals and represent the remarkable way that Nature promotes bonding between men and women, not something demeaning.”

Thus the man just tried to “Amuse his readers” and highlight research on “some fascinating new findings related to semen.”

I would have appreciated a more subtle ending of the editorial, but I would take no offense.

….Unlike many of his fellow female surgeons.  The Women in Surgery Committee and the Association of Women Surgeons considered his editorial as “demeaning to women” (NY-Times).

He offered his sincere apologies and resigned as Editor-in-Chief of the paper. The publication was retracted. As a matter of fact the entire February issue of Surgery News was taken off the ACS-website. Luckily, Retraction Watch published the editorial in its entirety.

Greenfield’s apologies weren’t enough, women surgeons brought the issue to the Board of Regents, who asked him to resign, which he eventually did.

A few weeks later he wrote a resentful letter. This is not a smart thing to do, but is understandable for several reasons. First, he didn’t he mean to be offensive and made his apologies. Second, he has an exemplary career as a longtime mentor and advocate of women in surgery. Third, true reason for his resign wasn’t the implicit plead for unprotected sex, but rather that the editorial reflected “a macho culture in surgery that needed to change.” Fourth, his life is ruined over something trivial.

Why can’t one write a lighthearted opinion-piece at Valentine’s day without getting resigned? Is it because admitting that “the “bond between men and women” is natural and runs deep” is one of those truths you cannot utter (Paul Rahe).

Is this perhaps typically American?

Elmar Veerman (Dutch Journalist, science editor at VPRO) comments at at Retraction Watch:

(…) Frankly, I don’t see the problem. I find it rather funny and harmless. Perhaps because I’m from Europe, where most people have a more relaxed attitude towards sex. Something like ‘nipplegate’ could never happen here (a nipple on tv, so what).  (…) I have been wondering for years why so many Americans seem to think violence is fine and sex is scary.

Not only female surgeons  object to the editorial. Well-known male (US) surgeons “fillet” the editorial at their blogs: Jeffrey Parks at Buckeye Surgeon ( 1 and 2), Orac Knows at Respectful Insolence (1 and 2) and Skeptical Scalpel (the latter quite mildly).

Jeffrey and Orac do not only think the man is humorless and a sexist, but also that the science behind the mood-enhancing aspects of semen is crap.

Although Jeffrey only regards “The “science” a little suspect as per Orac.”…. Because of course: “Orac knows.”

Orac exaggerates what Greenfield has said in the “breathtakingly inappropriate and embarrassing article  for Surgery News”, as he calls it. [1]:  “Mood-enhancing effects of semen” becomes in Orac’s words  the cure for female depression and  “a woman needs a man to inject his seed into her in order to be truly happy“.
Of course, it is not fair to twist words this way.

The criticism of Orac against the science that supports Dr. Greenfield’s joke is as follows: The first two studies are not related to human biology and the semen study” is “about as lame a study as can be imagined. Not only is it a study in which causation is implied by correlation, but to me the evidence of correlation is not even that compelling.”  

Orac is right about that. In his second post Orac continues (in response to the authors of the semen paper, who defend Greenfield and suggest they had obtained “more evidence”):

(..)so I was curious about where they had published their “replication.” PubMed has a wonderful feature in which it pops up “related citations” in the right sidebar of any citation you look up. I didn’t recall seeing any related citations presenting confirmatory data for Gallup et al’s study. I searched PubMed using the names of all three authors of the original “semen” study and found no publications regarding the antidepressant properties of semen since the original 2002 study cited by Dr. Greenfield. I found a lot of publications about yawning and mental states, but no followup study or replication of the infamous “semen” study. color me unimpressed” [2](..)

Again, I agree with Orac: the authors didn’t publish any confirmatory data.
But looking at related articles is not a good way to check if related articles have been published: PubMed creates this set by comparing words from the title, abstract, and MeSH terms using a word-weighted algorithm. It is goal is mainly to increase serendipity.

I didn’t have time to do a proper Pubmed search, which should include all kinds of synonyms for sperm and mood/depression. I just checked the papers citing Gallups original article in Google Scholar and found 29 hits (no Gallop papers indeed), including various articles by Costa & Brody i.e. the freely available letter (discussing their research): Greater Frequency of Penile–Vaginal Intercourse Without Condoms is Associated with Better Mental Health. This letter was a response to an opposite finding by the way.

I didn’t look at the original articles and I don’t really expect much of it. However, it just shows the Gallop study is not the only study, linking semen to positive health effects.

Assuming Greenfield had more than a joke in mind, and wanted to reflect on the state of art of health aspects of semen, it surprises me that he didn’t dig any further than this article from 2002.

Is it because he really based his editorial on a review in Scientific American from 2010, called “An ode to the many evolved virtues of human semen” [3,4], which describes Gallup’s study and, strikingly, also starts with discussing menstrual synchrony.

Greenfield could have discussed other, better documented, properties of semen, like its putative protection from pre-eclampsia (see references in Wikipedia)[5]

Or even better, he could have cited other sexual chemical signals that give you butterflies-feelings, like smell!

In stead of “Gut Feelings” the title could have been “In the nose of the beholder” or “The Smell of Love” [6].

And Greenfield could have concluded:

“So there’s more in the air than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates: perfume.

And no one would have bothered and would have done with the paper as one usually does with throwaways.

Notes

  1. Coincidentally, while reading Orac’s post I saw a Research Blogging post mentioned in the side bar: masturbation-and-restless-leg-syndrome. …Admittedly, this was a friday-weird-science post and a thorough review of a case study.
  2. It would probably have been easier to check their website with an overview of publications
  3. Mentioned in a comment somewhere, but I can’t track it down.
  4. If Greenfield used Scientific American as a source he should have read it all to the end, where the author states: I bid adieu, please accept, in all sincerity, my humblest apologies for what is likely to be a flood of bad, off-color jokes—men saying, “I’m not a medical doctor, but my testicles are licensed pharmaceutical suppliers” and so on—tracing its origins back to this innocent little article. Ladies, forgive me for what I have done.”
  5. Elmar Veerman has written a review on this topic in 2000 at Kennislink: http://www.kennislink.nl/publicaties/sperma-als-natuurlijke-bescherming (Dutch)
  6. As a matter of fact these are actual titles of scientific papers.
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8 responses

27 04 2011
Snoring Dog Studio

What an excellent article! You’ve very aptly covered other nuances and issues behind the story. And again highlighted the “mountain out of a molehill” aspect of the situation. And thank you for the mention! Love your blog. I’m subscribing.

28 04 2011
Bram Hengeveld

Very good article, thanks for the tweet. For the latest edition of a nursing journal I wrote a column which, among other things mentioned the ‘average breastsize’ of nurses. (wait, I can explain…), so I was actually a bit shocked by this; would it also ruin my non-existent career? So far I haven’t received any messages :)

I also think Orac’s post is unusually ill-conceived. For instance: he quotes in such a way that it seems that the fruitfly science is something he used to ‘backup’ the humanscience part. I don’t think that is so.

But I beg to differ a bit on the suggestion of sperm being something a man gives, not the result of mutual relationship. Isn’t valentine’s day about giving a gift to the one you love and isn’t sex a very nice aspect of such a relation? I wish it where otherwise, but that does involve the gooey stuff. :) Of course, I’m a man, but for the love of it, I can’t see how it is degenerate to women in that sense.

O/c one could read that you could better send a box of sperm instead of chocolates in the case of giving a hint of your love to someone who doesn’t know who sent it (like we send postcards here in Holland, don’t know about the habits in the US), but I think that’s quite far fetched. Down that road one even might see a certain aspect of rape or sexual harassment in that line of thought and I think that’s way out of line of the context of the editorial.

Or could it be that people don’t like to be reminded of the way we are so very much influenced by the chemical pathways in our body and more ‘alarming’ our brain? Do we want love to be this nice thing that’s devoid of materialisms? That’s the underlying theme I immediately recognized in the piece.

29 04 2011
Another Installment of… Heck In A Handbasket | Cactus Thorns

[...] SOURCE AND FULL STORY [...]

29 04 2011
Amanzimtoti

Excellent article. I found Dr Greenfield’s editorial quite funny, actually.

3 05 2011
International Health: Grand Rounds issue May 3, 2011 | Plumbing and Renovations

[...] We open with a classic “America, Land of the Hypocrite, Home of the Knave” perspective on the downfall of University of Michigan Professor Emeritus, Lazar Greenfield MD, brought to us by Laikas Mediblog, a medical librarian exploration from the Netherlands entitled How a Valentine’s Editorial about Chocolate & Semen Lead to the Resignation of Top Surgeon Gre…. [...]

4 05 2011
Randy Dineros

Ah yes, its good to change from serious subjects to these some times more fun topics.
Thanks for the article.

Randy

7 06 2011
To Retract or Not to Retract… That’s the Question « Laika's MedLibLog

[...] How a Valentine’s Editorial about Chocolate & Semen Lead to the Resignation of Top Surgeon Gr… (laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com 2011-06-02) [...]

29 09 2011
Scott

This was a witch hunt, most likely fueled by ulterior motives. I will never support another women’s cause of any kind again as long as I live.

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