You just never know when you'll get stuck in an elevator with the finalists for the new Victoria's Secret Catalog (all of whom just happen to be in estrus).
You never know when you open your door if Ed McMahon will be standing there with a $1 million check from Publishers Clearing House. (OK, this one you do know, since he's somewhat dead). Or a paroled member of the Manson Family. Or Paris Hilton with a parakeet on her head.
So, just when you think you've already seen the worst possible science paper in the entire history of multicellular life, life pulls the rug out from under you.
It's way too early in the week to be worrying about floor coverings, but I didn't ask for this. It just happened: "Environmental and State-Level Regulatory Factors Affect the Incidence of Autism and Intellectual Disability."
It hit the news—hard. And the press swallowed it so fast and unquestioningly that I can't get this image of Roseanne Barr and $.05 chicken wings at TGI Friday's out of my head.
But if there has ever been a better disconnect between a headline and what is really in the article, I've yet to see it. The authors attribute the increase in autism to exposure to environmental chemicals. And they do a damn fine job. Except they just happen to omit data (or even discussion) of any chemicals. Oops.
Andrey Rzhetsky and colleagues from the University of Chicago, writing in PLOS Computational Biology, ask readers to take a real leap of faith. Make that astronomical, not real. This is not subtle.
But, let's give them a chance: The jump in the prevalence of autism can be attributed to exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment. OK, I doubt it, but I can live with this for now.
But even a cursory read of their paper reveals a gaping flaw that is so bad that it invalidates the entire premise of the paper. They don't even mention, let alone measure one single chemical. Which would seem to be the barest of requirements for a paper making such a claim.
Instead, the group uses a "surrogate marker" for chemical exposure—genital deformities in males. And a load of math.
Huh?? Making an assertion about chemicals, but failing to provide any data to support it? They must be kidding. But they're not.
In order for the hypothesis of environmental chemicals causing autism to be true, all of the following must also be true:
- Genital abnormalities must be real, and measurable
- These abnormalities, if real, must be caused by chemical toxicity
- Autism must not only be linked to genital abnormalities, but there must also be a biologically plausible mechanism linking the two.
- The precipitous rise in autism must be explainable by a corresponding rise in either the number of new chemicals we are exposed to or to the amount of older ones. Something must have changed.
- There must be dose-dependent relationship: The rise in the prevalence of autism must be related to exposure to the chemicals in question.
But, the authors do include the following, which I found to be enormously helpful:
Indeed, the entire paper is based on statistics (and there are LOTS of them), which explains—to some extent—why it is both incomprehensible and so out of touch with the real world.
For a very detailed, referenced analysis of the many flaws in the study I recommend you read Emily Willingham's Forbes piece, which takes this much more seriously than I care to.
The fact is that no one knows what causes autism, and the authors admit that there could be multiple factors at play. You bet there are, and all of them make more sense than the premise of their own study.
At ACSH we deal with agenda driven science constantly. Very little surprises us any more. But this did.
It is a clownishly clumsy attempt to push an agenda—facts be damned.
But don't think that this kind of nonsense isn't effective. Some representative headlines:
UPI: "Toxic chemicals linked to autism, ADHD, dyslexia"
Time Magazine: "Growing Evidence That Autism Is Linked to Pollution"
CBS News: "More evidence environmental exposures contribute to autism"
International Business Times: "Scientists Link Child Autism to Air Pollution"
Yes, it's effective. And really harmful. The effect of bad science upon public health can be profound.
How many people died from refusing to be vaccinated because of Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent claims about vaccines and autism? And they continue to die today—from measles and whooping cough, among others—years after any clear thinking person would have finally admitted that they had been wrong all along.
Well, let me be the first to congratulate the Chicago group. They sure got their message out, even though it was the wrong message. I'm sure they will get a load of funding to continue their "research," while we once again look in the wrong direction for the real causes of autism.
I hope they sleep well.
Front page image: Vidaenalvalle