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Is this a worrying study, or is it flawed?

A study has found that cell phones are detrimental to male sperm quality (Lower sperm motility and sperm concentration). It’s original goal was to determine if image content has a effect on sperm quality, but accidentally discovered that men who said they kept their phone in their pocket had worse sperm quality than those who didn’t have a phone in their pocket. As far as I can tell, from my limited knowledge, the study isn’t very flawed. What I do know is that they used 52 men, which doesn’t seem like a lot.

Another possible flaw is in regard to how they took sperm samples. Sperm parameters can vary amongst healthy individuals, the WHO recommends taking at least 2 samples to determine fertility. This study took one sample from all 52 men, then asked them if they wanted to participate the second time around and only 25 men agreed. So, they did take more than one sample but only for 25 men. I’m not sure, but this doesn’t seem like very good methodology as only 25 of the samples are representative.

Another issue is that the study had a variable that it changed from person to person. As stated, it’s original goal was to find out if image content affected sperm quality, and they concluded that it can. They gave different images to each mam, meaning that some of the images would have had a detrimental affect to the sperm quality. So, they could have gave a healthy cell phone user a type of image that causes poor sperm quality. However, it would be coincidental that cell phone use was still correlated with poor sperm, even if the study randomly gave out out different images to different people that could cause poor sperm in the analysis the ones with poor sperm.

I was wondering if certain lifestyle factors that tend to be associated with phone use where causing the infertility, not the phones themselves, but the study had a very extensive questionnaire and adjusted for many different factors from bathing habits to diet, so I don’t think that the study can be flawed in this are. What do you guys think? Is this something that we should be worried about and change our habits over, or is it scientifically limited and no cause for alarm until bigger and better studies conform their findings?

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    $\begingroup$ The effect was 49.3% plus-or-minus 8.3%. Not a worry. I couldn’t get the data on how many carried their phones in pocket. $\endgroup$ – Polypipe Wrangler Jan 1 at 3:40
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to the dubious quality of the study, why would one necessarily worry about infertility? After all, quite a bit of effort has been devoted to the development of male contraceptives, so far unsuccessfully AFAIK. If a simple and fairly inexpensive electronic device could do the job, and also let you make phone calls & check your email, we should be celebrating, not worrying :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 1 at 5:04
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    $\begingroup$ @PolypipeWrangler what do you mean by ‘The effect was 49.3% plus-or-minus 8.3%’? $\endgroup$ – needsomeonetoezplain Jan 1 at 10:26
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf firstly, few men using contraceptives choose pernanent snd irreversible contraception; secondly, here they don't even make a choice - they might be rendered infertile without wishing it. $\endgroup$ – Vadim Jan 2 at 6:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Vadim: Does the study claim that the supposed infertility is irreversable, or just a temporary effect? As for the choice, any and every action will have unforeseen consequences. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 2 at 18:45
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The study is basically worthless.

First, the study was not constructed to test this hypothesis, so it's just something interesting that may point to future studies. It does not provide sufficient evidence.

But the biggest problem is that the study was of 52 individuals with only one or two samples, which makes it statistically useless.

Any uncontrolled variable could account for all the difference detected. If one person had low sperm count because they wore tight underwear it would completely account for the difference.

This would barely qualify as an exploratory study, much less anything conclusive. This study would need to be reconstructed with a minimum of thousands of people, or control the participants' behavior (preferably both), to produce useful conclusions.

Any study with a really small N that deals with human behavior is basically worthless as far as any certainty goes.

The questionnaire is not any better — cellphone position is just binary: 1 belt and/or pocket, 2 anything else. Since most of the people are going to fall in the first category, there are very few degrees of freedom to work with. They just ran all the numbers hoping to get something. This is barn door statistics at its worst.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! The study did have a relatively good questionnaire which account for thing like diet, tight underwear, etc. (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617155/bin/…) But I take your point over the small sample size. Do you think that the fact that the study was done in 2004, a time when phone where very different to what they are today, makes it hard to apply their results to the modern day world? $\endgroup$ – needsomeonetoezplain Jan 1 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ Its just basic statistics and experimental design. which is why I argue the basics should be taught in primary school. recognizing bad statistics in not too hard but it is not taught. I minored in statistics but you really don't need to know any the the math involved to stop such problems. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 1 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ @John — Your post came up in the edit queue. I improved on the suggested edits by adding a link to what I infer you mean by "barn door statistics", but I'm letting you know in case I guessed wrong! $\endgroup$ – tyersome Jan 1 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ @tyersome that is it exactly. thank you;. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 1 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ You're welcome! An added bonus is this means I've leaned a new term today. $\endgroup$ – tyersome Jan 1 at 23:26

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