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Monday, August 12, 2013

Bad Reporting in The New York Times

A number of posts have discussed autism and the news media. At Forbes, Emily Willingham knocks down a shoddy story in The New York Times:
Perhaps you saw the headline. God knows, it was eye catching enough: “Autism’s Unexpected Link to Cancer Gene.”
That headline and the utterly confusing story that follows it both fail to emphasize two very important clarifications: First, the gene in question isn’t just a “cancer gene.” It’s a gene that regulates the cell cycle, and changes in these genes can and do have effects that aren’t confined to cancer. Calling it a “cancer” gene in this context is inflammatory, at best.

Second, and more important, the autism in question, according to all of the research involving this gene and other similar genes, is part of a syndrome of traits that includes a head circumference that is either significantly small (microcephaly) or significantly larger (macrocephaly) than typical. It comes with clinical signs other than autism, and that’s important, particularly for parents looking at their children after reading this article and thinking, “Cancer?”
She predicts that the article will have two effects:
It will conflate autism and cancer yet again in people’s minds and lead parents of autistic children to worry that now, they must also angst about a predisposition to cancer, and it will anger autistic advocates and those who care about them because of its careless comparison of autism and a fatal disease. Autistic people and their families deserve more care than this, and readers of the New York Times deserve careful, accurate science writing placed in an appropriate context.