If the science were not confusing enough, its coverage in the mass media has added another layer of murk. News reports hype tentative findings and weak correlations as “breakthroughs” in the quest for autism answers. When the research yields mixed results, the media headlines can be comically inconsistent. Consider how various publications covered a 2013 study on the impact of in vitro fertilization:At Forbes, Steven Salzburg gives some recent reporting a B but the headlines an F:
[i] John J. Pitney, Jr., “IVF, Autism, and Headlines,” Autism Policy and Politics, July 2, 2013. Online: http://www.autismpolicyblog.com/2013/07/ivf-autism-and-headlines.html; “Autism and IVF: More Contradictory Headlines,” Autism Policy and Politics, July 3, 2013. Online: http://www.autismpolicyblog.com/2013/07/autism-and-ivf-more-contradictory.html
- RARE IN VITRO TECHNIQUE RAISES AUTISM RISK, STUDY SAYS
- IVF PROCEDURES DO NOT BOOST AUTISM RISK
- SOME FORMS OF IVF LINKED TO AUTISM, MENTAL DISABILITY
- IVF, AUTISM NOT LINKED, BUT STUDY FINDS RISK OF INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY[i]
My first example of bad news is from a couple of weeks ago. I was struck by a headline that showed up in one of my news feeds that read:Neuroscientists reverse autism symptomsWow, I thought. This would be a real breakthrough if it were true. I traced the headline back to the MIT press office, where I then saw the subheading: “turning on a gene later in life can restore typical behavior in mice.” Uh oh: Extrapolating any treatment from mice to humans is fraught with problems, and studying a complex behavioral disorder like autism is even more difficult.
The HuffPo fell for it, though. Their headline read, “Some Autism Symptoms May Be Reversed By Gene Editing, Scientists Suggest.” So did the Daily Mail, which went with this headline:
Reversing autism ‘at the flick of a switch’: ‘Turning on’ a single gene in mice has been found to reduce autistic behavioursAt least they mentioned mice in the headline. But then they wrote that “scientists have announced a major breakthrough in treating the genetic cause of the spectral condition.” Sorry, but there’s no new treatment available. (Never mind the poor writing that used “spectral condition” to describe autism spectrum disorder.)...This is nice incremental work on a gene that seems to affect behavior in both mice and humans. I don’t see it leading to any advances in the treatment of human autism for at least a decade, if ever.