The Guardian – purveyors of bad science

14 Jan

I’ve watched for awhile as the UK media whips itself up into a frenzy over the latest bit of autism research from Simon Baron-Cohen. I wanted to see if they could manage to curb themselves and their tendency to reduce everything to soundbite. Of course they couldn’t. The idea they could is silly.

However, call me an old Lefty but I thought The Guardian might do a little better than it has. It not only started this silly pre-natal testing storm-in-a-teacup, it continues to push it in the most credulous way.

On 12th Jan Sarah Boseley (apparently a Health Editor) wrote:

New research brings autism screening closer to reality

A piece that says:

New research published today will bring prenatal testing for autism significantly closer…

This is twaddle. And yet, The Guardian published an op-ed piece (well, blog post) today from Marcel Berlins which leads with:

The prospect of a screening test on a pregnant woman predicting her child’s autism is not far away, and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, leader of the Cambridge University research team that developed the test…

Again, twaddle. And twaddle on two fronts.

Here’s the truth stated simply: Baron-Cohen’s work is not going to speed up a pre-natal test for autism. Baron-Cohen did not develop any test.

In a piece in Nature, Baron-Cohen explains:

The Guardian [newspaper] is focusing on the issue of screening. The study is not about screening and it is not motivated by trying to develop the screening test. It was motivated by trying to understand possible causal factors in autism…

So not only is Baron-Cohen _not_ developing a pre-natal test, he is quite clear that his work _will not_ speed up the development of a pre-natal test.

And yet two prominent Guardian columnists are writing as if it was a done deal.

In fact, the misrepresentation of the science involved goes beyond the surface of what Baron-Cohen is _not_ doing but what his work _is_ doing. From the NHS website:

The findings are based on a scientific study of 235 children aged between eight and 10, whose mothers had amniocentesis, a test analysing fluid taken from around a foetus. None of these children were autistic, but those exposed to higher testosterone levels showed higher levels of ‘autistic traits’, such as poor verbal and social skills.

So, lets be clear, *none of the kids in this study were autistic* – so touting this study as a potential shortcut to a pre-natal test is several steps ahead of itself.

The study itself was in undergone to further test Baron-Cohen’s theory that autism is an ‘extreme male brain’ disorder. It is worth remembering that this theory is contentious even within the mainstream autism science community.

Psychologist Kate Plaisted Grant, also from the University of Cambridge…isn’t convinced that the findings support the underlying theory. “The broader scientific community hasn’t accepted the idea of the extreme male brain,” she says. Fetal testosterone “may create a special brain, but it doesn’t necessarily create a male brain”.

Psychiatrist Laurent Mottron…says that just because males and people with autistic disorders score similarly in autism questionnaires, this does not mean that autistic traits are the same as male traits. Rather, he argues, it just shows that the test cannot discriminate between maleness and autism.

“For me, it’s exactly the same as saying that two things that weigh the same are both made of the same stuff,” he explains.

There is also the distinct possibility that autistic women have not been counted accurately in the past. I know I have read some research on this but I cannot put my hands on it. Maybe someone in the comments can help me out.

The Guardian need to take a step back and screw their collective heads back on. There should be a debate about pre-natal testing for autism but to me, its not a debate to have until it becomes a realistic possibility. The autism community has enough on its plate right now without getting into a purely theoretical debate.

22 Responses to “The Guardian – purveyors of bad science”

  1. Sharon January 15, 2009 at 07:35 #

    Like you, I somehow expect more of that newspaper. The past few days have thrown up many articles and comments which are upsetting to read. I wrote about the Guardian’s coverage on Monday and the apparent health editor Sarah Boseley’s effort in their podcast.

    Have you seen the comments after this great piece on CiF? Don’t read if you’ve just eaten. I feel queasy after wading through that lot.

  2. Sharon January 15, 2009 at 07:39 #

    Like you, I somehow expect more of that newspaper. The past few days have thrown up many articles and comments which are upsetting to read. I wrote about the Guardian’s coverage on Monday and the apparent health editor Sarah Boseley’s effort in their podcast.

    Have you seen the comments after this great piece on CiF? Don’t read if you’ve just eaten. I feel queasy after wading through that lot.

  3. Teek January 15, 2009 at 09:32 #

    Yep, it’s fair to expect more from the Grauniad, home of Dr. Ben Goldacre and some otherwise excellent science reporting. This just shows that no media outlet is immune from sensationalising sound research, and spinning from it a story to fit their own agenda.

    Disappointing coming as it did from Bosely, who otherwise is pretty good – perhaps you should write to the letters page, or at least to the readers’ editor – the Graun is at least very rigorous in following up on complaints about its journalism!

  4. Socrates January 15, 2009 at 14:19 #

    Well, his Holiness should’ve known better. The University has a very experienced press office and if he’s not going to use their services he deserves everything he gets.

    It was his piece for the BBC a few days before that raised the temperature of the debate – deliberately so on his part.

    The news hit the street long before I could find a copy of the paper and it’s not surprising the newspapers have had a field day.

    Given the circumstances he should’ve release an exegetical press release with the results of the study.

    Not wait until the day after and dash off a lame response on the university’s website.

    Prof. Double-Barrelled may well have many notable abilities but clearly media management is one of them.

    As for his “Hey, I didn’t pull the trigger, I just made the bullets – but only on the condition that they were going to be used for shooting rats” – No Comment.

  5. Neuroskeptic January 15, 2009 at 14:27 #

    Eh? University Press Offices are notorious for over-playing research. Most crap science journalism (like this) is in fact just copy-and-pasted press releases. Or if the press release is sensible, it gets ignored.

    So I don’t think you can blame Baron-Cohen for this at all, even if he does have a sinfully double-barreled name(?).

    Note that this is not the first time the Guardian/Observer has utterly mangled SBC’s work. Does someone high up in the company have an axe to grind about autism?…

  6. Sharon January 15, 2009 at 15:44 #

    Socrates makes a good point there. Despite SBC’s claims to have been misunderstood, he did start this process with his piece to the BBC which focussed on screening for autism. He said, “Caution is needed before scientists embrace prenatal testing so that we do not inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently ‘cure’ not just autism but the associated talents that are not in need of treatment.”

    He must have known that speaking about screening before releasing data which measured antenatal environment would be misinterpreted by some as a precursor to screening.
    He must have known that this was a good way of getting a fairly unimpressive study hyped up and well covered by the major newspapers. Now he’s presenting himself as the used party.

  7. RAJ January 15, 2009 at 15:59 #

    Like all single-cause theories of autism (vaccinations, extreme male brain, refrgerator mother) SBC is long on speculation, conjecture and hypothesizing and wafer thin on science.

    However, if high levels of fetal tetesterone levels causes ‘autism’ or ‘autistic traits’, prevention and treatment would be a high priority and prenatal interventions that lower fetal tetesterone levels could lead to minimizing the consequences of high fetal tetesterone levels.

    How long before SBC, or DAN doctors, introduce a new BioMed autism treatement.

    Animal studies have consistently shown that prenatal exposure to alcohol or marijuana is associated with low levels of fetal tetesterone.

    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119454654/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/97kw106n254603t2/

    As SBC’s theory gains traction it won’t be long before before ‘medical marijuana’ becomes a treatment of choice offered by DAN doctors.

    Of course, there is the problem of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which is also associated with both low tetesterone levels and ASD’s.

  8. Socrates January 15, 2009 at 16:50 #

    Like all single-cause theories of autism

    RAJ, you dug yourself a fine hole, please jump in it.

    He must have known that this was a good way of getting a fairly unimpressive study hyped up and well covered by the major newspapers. Now he’s presenting himself as the used party.

    Yes indeed, it is only one paper in a series that have come from this project and there will be many more.

  9. Socrates January 15, 2009 at 16:51 #

    Like all single-cause theories of autism

    RAJ, you dug yourself a fine hole, please jump in it.

    He must have known that this was a good way of getting a fairly unimpressive study hyped up and well covered by the major newspapers. Now he’s presenting himself as the used party.

    Yes indeed, it is only one paper in a series that have come from this project and there will be many more.

    ~

  10. Socrates January 15, 2009 at 16:52 #

    Like all single-cause theories of autism

    RAJ, you dug yourself a fine hole, please jump in it.

    He must have known that this was a good way of getting a fairly unimpressive study hyped up and well covered by the major newspapers. Now he’s presenting himself as the used party.

    Yes indeed, it is only one paper in a series that have come from this project and there will be many more.

  11. Socrates January 15, 2009 at 16:52 #

    Like all single-cause theories of autism

    RAJ, you dug yourself a fine hole, please jump in it.

    He must have known that this was a good way of getting a fairly unimpressive study hyped up and well covered by the major newspapers. Now he’s presenting himself as the used party.

    Yes indeed, it is only one paper in a series that have come from this project and there will be many more.

    +

  12. Socrates January 15, 2009 at 16:53 #

    I vote LBRB, “most Cranky Commenting System” on a science blog.

    Like all single-cause theories of autism

    RAJ, you dug yourself a fine hole, please jump in it.

    He must have known that this was a good way of getting a fairly unimpressive study hyped up and well covered by the major newspapers. Now he’s presenting himself as the used party.

    Yes indeed, it is only one paper in a series that have come from this project and there will be many more.

  13. Socrates January 15, 2009 at 16:54 #

    Where are my hugely erudite and witty posts disappearing to?

  14. Socrates January 15, 2009 at 16:54 #

    I vote LBRB, “most Cranky Commenting System” on a science blog.

    Like all single-cause theories of autism

    RAJ, you dug yourself a fine hole, please jump in it.

    He must have known that this was a good way of getting a fairly unimpressive study hyped up and well covered by the major newspapers. Now he’s presenting himself as the used party.

    Yes indeed, it is only one paper in a series that have come from this project and there will be many more.

  15. Ringside Seat January 15, 2009 at 17:52 #

    I’m not sure it’s possible to say what his focus was with the BBC, since they will have left out what they didn’t want him to say, and kept the most inflammatory part. Screening for this that and the other is definitely an issue to touch a lot of people, even if it’s currently baseless.

    It may also have been that he was trying in vain to head off something he already saw coming.

    I doubt very much that the BBC said he could have a couple of minutes to say what he liked and they would use it.

  16. RAJ January 15, 2009 at 19:40 #

    “Like all single-cause theories of autism”

    “RAJ, you dug yourself a fine hole, please jump in it”.

    Since you are a self diagnosed ‘Aspie’ who has problems with social communication, (like hurling juvenile insults at anyone who doesn’t have Man Crush on SBC) might I suggest trying medical marijuna yourself, it has been shown to reduce testosterone levels even in adults, which as SBC has shown results in extreme male traits, such as insulting anyone you disagree with.

  17. Kev January 15, 2009 at 19:52 #

    Its true that SBC is responsible for his own quotes to the BBC but I guess I just expect more of the Guardian.

  18. Socrates January 15, 2009 at 20:01 #

    Of course when it was the Manchester Guardian…

    Sorry about the Spam Kev. Please feel free to have me lynched by your server (as long as it’s Linux)

    RAJ,

    I love it when you get riled.

  19. Joseph January 15, 2009 at 20:02 #

    How long before SBC, or DAN doctors, introduce a new BioMed autism treatement.

    Do you ignore everything that goes on in the autism world, RAJ, and then decide to comment about it anyway? Ever heard of the Lupron protocol?

    I also want to see what’s coming to you from Socrates. Again, just talking out of your ass there; insulting Socrates while claiming he’s insulted you.

  20. jypsy January 15, 2009 at 23:58 #

    Socrates, I believe your comments may be hanging out with some I’ve made on Lisa Jo Rudy’s blog

    SBC & colleagues on Lupron:

    “It concerns us that Geier and Geier (2007) for example are using testosterone-blockers on already diagnosed children with autism
    (blocking current testosterone) as we are not aware that this has passed through the relevant safety checks and the drug they
    are using (Lupron) is a form of chemical castration, usually used for treating adult sex offenders. As such it seems wholly
    inappropriate to use it on children with developmental disabilities”

    (Thanx to Michelle an TMoB board for that)

  21. David N. Andrews M. Ed. (Distinction) January 16, 2009 at 03:04 #

    RAJ: “might I suggest trying medical marijuna yourself”

    That is basically a prescription for a pharmaceutcal intervention. Does your state/national licensing board know that you’re practising medicine without a licence? Would you like it for me to inform them, or do you prefer to turn yourself in?

    You pissing idiot!

    I’m nto angry or worked up: I’m just disappointed in the fact that humans can be as stupid as you obviously get your jollies out of being!

    *walks away, shaking head in disbelieve and despair*

  22. David N. Andrews M. Ed. (Distinction) January 16, 2009 at 03:06 #

    “I’m nto angry or worked up” -> “I’m not angry or worked up”

    Typo.

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