More autism

Friday, October 20, 2006

TIME.com: Why We Need to be Careful in the Search for Autism’s Cause – Page 1

The week also brought a more definitive, though less splashy finding on the causes of autism, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. A team led by Levitt found that a fairly common gene variation-one that’s present in 47% of the population-is associated with an increased risk of autism.

I just posted about the research that this article is responding to. This Time article sounds a little like blogosphere hate - because many bloggers read the article I did and talked about it, the article must be based on wild conjecture and made up data.

I think it’s great that scientists take the research of others with a grain of salt - if it looks contrary to what you’ve seen, you should certainly investigate. And I understand the feeling of many experts in various fields that the internet has allowed everyone to think they are experts, and spread their opinions all over. But isn’t it at least worth investigating? They’ve found some strong statistics suggesting that increased TV watching corresponds with a rise in autism. Isn’t that at least a good starting point? Why can’t the geneticists and medical researchers talk to the economists about their findings? Maybe that would be helpful.

The fact that something is blogged does not make it right or wrong. Many smart people blog many smart things. And many not so smart people blog misleading or untrue things. Actually, I’m sure smart bloggers post false information, too. Anyway.

Time had this to say about the previous research:

Could there be something to this strange piece of statistical derring- do? It’s not impossible, but it would take a lot more research to tease out its true significance. Meanwhile, it’s hard to say just what these correlations measure.

A lot more research? Well, lucky us, we have 300 million people in the country. Surely some of them could do research. Maybe they could look for reasons why or why not TV watching affects autism. Maybe a kid has to be genetically predisposed to autism to get it, but that watching a lot of TV at a young age makes it more likely. Meanwhile, it’s hard to say what ANY correlations measure. We don’t live in a vaccuum with only one or two outside influences acting on our bodies and lives at a time. If we did, cause and effect would be easy to determine. “Look, that guy who likes to swim in a pool of mercury is looking a little unwell.”

Edit: Time has now changed the title of the story from “_Why We Need to be Careful in the Search for Autism’s Cause_” to “_A Bizarre Study Suggests — Irresponsibly — That Watching TV Causes Autism_”.  I don’t know how much they changed the article since this morning - I think the opening paragraph is more skeptical of the report, but the rest of the article looks the same.  I’ll leave it to you to decide what that all means.

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