Comment »Posted on Saturday 15 November 2008 at 12:55 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

You may have seen a story last week about a link between rainfall and cases of autism – but not on Just A Theory. I had considered writing a full post on the story, before shunting it to the Weekly Roundup and then eventually dropping it all together. The link seemed so unlikely to me that I wanted to do a decent amount of background reading before posting anything, and unfortunately I didn’t have the time last week.

I’ve still not got around to it (between the course, blog research, and recreational, there is only so much reading I can do in a day!) but a course-mate did point me towards a comment piece in New Scientist.

The author, Ewen Callaway, analyses some of the media responses. Many outlets were eager to play up the idea that rain could increase autism rates, despite the Cornell University scientists’ paper (which, as I said above, I haven’t read) being extremely cautious in their analysis. Callaway argues that the mainstream media should never have reported the story:

It offers nothing useful for the general public, parents, and even physicians. And press reports, blogs and other accounts of the study could even mislead the public.

Adding later:

I can see worried parents hearing about the rain association, second- or third-hand, and keeping their kids in on showery days, or forcing them to play in the rain, or whatever “news you can use” suggestion gets tagged on to these stories.

Autism in the press remains a hot issue amongst scientists, after the handling of the MMR vaccine issue. On my course we recently discussed whether newspapers were right in running the initial story on Andrew Wakefield’s announcement that the vaccine was unsafe. Despite knowing with hindsight the saga that followed, the majority agreed that the story should be run.

Here, the issue is different. I would contest Callaway’s point that the story offers “nothing” to the public; it can be used as an interesting example of the uncertainty of statistical studies – but that hardly makes for an interesting news story.

Unlike MMR, in which a (back then, at least) respected scientist stood up and said that the vaccine should not be used, there isn’t really any news here. The media had to report on Wakefield’s announcement, even if the actual science was tenuous. Contrastingly, no one is calling for parents to keep their children indoors and out of the rain. Without this type of controversy, all that is left is a possible statistical anomaly – not news.

It seems that some outlets agreed with Callaway and myself – I cannot find any mention of the story in The Guardian, for example. Hopefully others will be less keen to jump on autism “stories” in the future

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