Homeopathy: is there any pseudoscience that’s less based in reality, or less embarrassing for its adherents? I mean after all, it’s literally sugar water that quacks say “remembers” molecules that used to be in it and if you have cancer obviously you should eat some water that used to have uranium in it or whatever.
So yeah, it’s useless, can be debunked by a 7-year old, and is dangerous when used by very sick people instead of real medicine. What could possibly be worse than homeopathy?
Okay. So, prepare yourselves because this is like Dante’s Inferno if instead of Hell you journey through nine concentric circles of stupidity. Which, to be fair, is my version of Hell.
We begin in the first circle of stupidity: noted white supremacist and frozen fish stick fortune heir Tucker Carlson has made a docuseries. The docuseries is called “The End of Men.” This is the trailer, and just to prepare you for it, let me tell you that it’s so bonkers that Snopes had to publish a fact check saying that yes, he did actually make this even though the mean libs cut out some context, which “gave the slightly misleading impression that Carlson’s trailer consisted entirely of muscular, half-dressed men exhibiting their physical prowess.” Guys, it’s not ENTIRELY muscular, half-dressed men exhibiting their physical prowess. There’s a solid 10 seconds of JFK at the beginning.
So apparently one of the ways Tucker Carlson thinks Men are Ending is by falling testosterone levels, and apparently one of the ways to fix this is “red light therapy,” aka ball tanning, as artfully demonstrated in his trailer by a man sexually assaulting the 2001 monolith.
To discuss this in the most scientifically accurate way, Carlson invited on Andrew McGovern, who is a urologist who studies the impact of low-level diodes on androgens. Just kidding, he’s a personal trainer. I have a lot of respect for personal trainers because I do calisthenics, and because they are experts in that they can help me perfect my form in my anti-rotation core progression. I trust them with my planks, but I would not necessarily trust them with whether or not I should expose my genitals to lasers. Let’s see, there must be some kind of mnemonic device for this. How about, “for building your abs, personal trainers are fab; roasting your junk, that’s total bunk.”
So there are a few claims being made here, with varying levels of truth hiding within them:
1) Testosterone levels in men are dropping over time
2) That’s bad
3) Red light therapy helps
So first of all, is testosterone dropping? The preponderance of research says yes. Cis men have been steadily losing testosterone since at least the 1980s. In 2007, researchers published a seminal (haha) study of 1,700 men in Boston over the course of several decades that found “a substantial, and as yet unrecognized, age-independent population-level decrease in T in American men, potentially attributable to birth cohort differences or to health or environmental effects not captured in observed data.” That’s just one large study picked at random but there have been dozens and dozens that have found the same thing.
Early on, many researchers thought this was just the result of age: as men get older, their testosterone tends to go down, and of course the Boomers have been tipping the scales in their favor for quite awhile now. But then studies like this came along and found, actually, there’s no real reason why testosterone has to decrease as men age, and second, the trend still holds even when controlling for age.
The next obvious culprit is obesity, which has risen dramatically over the past 40 years and which is known to throw off hormones in both men and women, including suppressing testosterone. Smoking is another habit that’s changed in that time – much to my surprise, I learned that smoking nicotine increases testosterone, so quitting, as many men have done in the past few decades, would lower it.
But then studies came out (including my example from 2007) showing that the trend holds even when controlling for age, obesity, AND smoking. That leaves a few other possibilities that many researchers think may be to blame, including the idea that environmental toxins like plastics and pesticides might cause it. In the end, there are probably loads of factors that all add up to what we’re seeing, so there is no one solution.
So yes, testosterone levels are dropping. On to the second (unstated but assumed) claim: that that’s a bad thing.
I touched on this subject a few months ago when I talked about “No Nut November” and how some men seem obsessed with increasing their testosterone levels, even without a doctor saying their level is low. Our society has placed testosterone on a weird, phallic pedestal, above other hormones, to the point that the average person seems to think that MORE must be BETTER. In fact, more isn’t better: the ideal level of testosterone is in the range that your body is capable of handling or, if you’re trying to modify your body in some particular way (like if you’re trans or a bodybuilder) then the ideal is the level where you get the results that you want. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy, per se, but not everyone’s goal is just “physical health.”
Even if your testosterone falls below what doctors consider the “normal” range, it’s not the end of the world and you may not even need to supplement. Testosterone levels change over the course of a day and a month and a year, and they change with your activity levels. Many cis men with slightly lower than average testosterone won’t even notice.
For very low testosterone, cis men may experience lower sex drive, lower energy, and less muscle strength, at which point they may want a therapeutic intervention.
And so along with dropping testosterone, researchers have also noticed an increase in issues like erectile dysfunction. And sure, that IS a negative. It’s generally treatable, but no one can say that it’s a good thing to have on the rise. So to speak. Poor choice of words, sorry.
That said, we don’t know if that’s all due to lower testosterone, or if it’s due to a related trend like an increase in obesity or a decrease in physical labor. We also don’t truly know how much of it is due to successful marketing on the part of boner pill companies that push the idea that if your dick isn’t hard 24/7, are you really living your life to the fullest?
There are a lot of issues all wrapped up together: how society sees cis men, how cis men want to see themselves, and how everyone thinks of testosterone as a central aspect of manliness. Yet we have anthropologists finding that testosterone drops when cis men get married, and even when they just live in a home with other people. Their testosterone drops when they hold their newborn child, and men who report more “spousal investment” like wanting to spend more time with their partners instead of going out with friends tended to have lower testosterone. Obviously hormones don’t directly control all our behaviors but if those trends hold more or less true, then are those bad trade-offs? If I had to choose between a partner with higher testosterone and one who loves me more, personally I’d go for the latter.
And of course, the partner with lower testosterone may also live a longer, happier life, considering that increased testosterone is linked to prostate cancer, as well as strokes and heart attacks.
So is it a bad thing that testosterone levels are dropping among cis men? We really can’t say. “Change” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad,” unless you make your living as a conservative on TV who spends his time convincing older Americans that anything they don’t personally remember experiencing as an 8-year old child in the 1950s is, by default, “evil.”
All of which brings me to the third claim: that red light therapy will work to fix this “problem” of dropping testosterone. The personal trainer was more correct than he knew when he branded it “bromeopathy,” because the real-world evidence that it works is about as good as that of homeopathy, and it’s marketed to morons who don’t care about that because all they care about is being a bro.
For the most part, the “science” behind this claim was performed on animals with less-than-impressive results. For instance, in 2013 Korean researchers blasted 20 rats’ testicles with red light for 30 minutes a day for five days straight, and found that the 10 rats exposed to a 670 nm laser (but not the 10 exposed to an 808 nm laser) showed an increase in testosterone. Over on Twitter, Lindsay Beyerstein has a great thread on another study from 1981 that did a similar experiment on quails. “Unlike humans,” she writes, “quail have a breeding season and they suck their balls back into their bodies when it’s not time.”
There doesn’t appear to be any research supporting this sort of thing in humans. I’ve now, sadly, read dozens of articles promoting the use of red light therapy devices to increase testosterone and the only studies they cite are the 2013 10-rat study, a few studies that suggest red light might increase sperm motility in a petri dish, and a “1939 study in which researchers exposed different areas of (five) men’s bodies to UV light until the skin reddened. After five days, testosterone levels rose by 120 percent when the light was focused on the men’s chest. A 200 percent increase in T levels was seen after eight days of exposure to the genitals, which reportedly was due to a boost in the production of the cells that produce testosterone (Leydig cells).”
Remarkably, I DID manage to find that study but I also found an equally small study published in 2020 that attempted to more or less replicate that study for the first time ever, which didn’t work out so well: “These findings suggest that acute UV light exposure may be insufficient to positively impact serum testosterone…in older adult men.”
And that was UV light, not just red light. Which, by the way, you may not want to blast onto your genitals in large amounts considering that UV light can, you know, cause cancer. At least red light doesn’t do that. But we have zero evidence that red light therapy does anything else for your testosterone, so why is Tucker Carlson interviewing a personal trainer who says it does?
“Bromeopathy.” It’s the best possible word for it, because it is, in fact, a form of absolute pseudoscience that was invented to sell garbage to bros who are terrified of losing their “masculinity,” whatever that means. Don’t buy it. And I mean that literally and figuratively: don’t buy the dick spotlight, and don’t buy the idea that there’s some genocide of masculinity happening that will result in men going extinct. The world changes, and sometimes, if you can believe it, that’s a good thing.