How Most Autism "Science" Is Distorted Before You Read It


You really shouldn't pay much attention to most reporting on autism research.  Jess at Don't Mind the Mess offers an exquisite and excruciating case study that explains exactly why this is.  She traces one specific and terrible story called "Top 10 Chemicals Most Likely to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities" back to its source, and explains how it becomes less accurate at each step of the way:

There’s a recurring problem here. Valuable research is done. Research is disseminated. Information is reported. Articles are read. Findings are spread. What starts in a lab ends up in a Facebook status. What starts as truth ends up as mistruth in something like a child’s game of telephone. Along the way, piece by piece, truth fades away in favor of headlines and pageviews and gossip.

This is essential reading because we are bombarded with exaggerated claims on a weekly basis, and should understand just how weak they actually are.  I cannot write about this type of science with any reliability because it's not the kind of science I understand.  It's a relief to me to read Jess admitting that she understands that even she lacks the background needed to completely understand the science she is writing about:

I have a B.S. in Biochemistry, but I feel I’m unqualified to write this article. I’d much rather it be written by someone with a PhD. I’m married to a PhD, which has given me a lot more exposure to science since leaving school, but I fully acknowledge that I shouldn’t be the one doing this. I know how to read a scientific article and examine its conclusions, but I certainly am not someone who can tell you if their methods and analysis are correct.

But I’m talking because there aren’t enough people talking about it. Because the PhD’s aren’t generally science writers. They are scientists. They write about their research in journals, not in the newspaper. And certainly not on a blog for a healthy living magazine.

I'm grateful to The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism and to Emily Willingham at Double X Science, both for this specific essay and the excellent reporting they do in general on the science of autism.