Thursday, October 26, 2006

Significance of Cornell Autism and Early Childhood Television Link Cast Into Doubt

I wrote recently about research at Cornell which suggested a possible link between early childhood television viewing and autism. The paper was publicized on Slate as an "exclusive" on their front page on October 16. Early skeptics pointed out that the findings were the basis of a conference paper, not a published study, that it had not been peer-reviewed, and that the ramifications of its suggestions were profound. Given that its authors were not arguing that they had unequivocal findings, but merely that further study was needed, I felt that the information was worth passing on to Think In Pictures readers.

A few pundits have since taken the study's methods to task, and Slate readers' criticisms have been among the most perceptive. Since I pointed to the paper and the article when they were published, I thought I should comment on the findings of readers forced to do the research that should have tempered Slate's coverage of this astonishing study.

One Slate reader wrote:

Easterbrook consistently refers to the increase in autism that begins "around 1980, about the same time cable television and VCRs became common". If Easterbrook had done his homework he would have found that 1980 was also the year the diagnosis of "Autism" actually became a diagnostic entry in its own right in the DSM-III. It was reclassified from being part of "psychotic" disorders (like schizophrenia) to having a specific heading in "developmental" disorders. Furthermore, in 1980's the 'autism spectrum' (autism, PDD-NOS, and the newly-minted Asperger's syndrome) definitions were changed or created to include persons with normal range IQ, and less severe symptoms. All of these changes to diagnosis would significantly impact the makeup of the population called "autism spectrum disorders" (ASD)-- sometimes just called "autism" by the media. (to the confusion of many readers). All of these changes coincided with the increase in television-watching, but (am i going out on a limb here?) weren't caused by television.
There is a great critique of the study on the blog Autisum Diva. There's also a great critique of the study's logic and methodology on the autism blog Natural Variation.

In retrospect, I should also have seen Slate's "exclusive" coverage of this study as a red flag. With all due respect to a great web magazine, their strength is in commentary, not reporting, and they frequently abuse one of the most challenging tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, which I combed through yesterday when looking for published stances on interview editing:
[Journalists should] Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
No one needs to be told that the pressure to "sell" one's story - at the levels of reporting and editing - all conspire to inflame controversy on the pages of daily publications. This seems to be a case of inflation at both levels, which means that, technically speaking, the SPJ guideline as stated can't touch them; the front page sold the story as it was written. The real question is not whether the article accurately described the limitations of the study; it is whether the quality of the study rose to the level that it should receive front-page "exclusive" coverage on, or whether the author was competent to evaluate the true value of the findings, given his predisposition towards their message.

But between an enthusiastic and underinformed reporter and the pages of any publication stands an editor. I don't claim to know what Slate science editor Emily Bazelon was thinking on the night of October 15, but it's pretty clear what she was not thinking about: the column editor-at-large Jack Shafer wrote about Easterbrook back in 2003, after the New Republic columnist and Slate contributor was fired from his post as's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" and attacked by the Anti-Defamation League for an ill-informed blog post. Shafer mused about Easterbrook's fumble:
How could such a thoughtful, deliberate, and precise journalist have gone so stupendously wrong? Having edited Easterbrook numerous times over the years, I know him to be a polymath and a quick study, as well as a good critic of his own work. But this is the first Easterbrook piece that appears to be written from a position of ignorance. His career has been about rigor, originality, and sincerity. That said, perhaps he's not the guy who should write without the safety net of an editor.
Make that two pieces, Jack. And so much for that safety net!

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