In mainstream media, everywhere from Fox News to Time (and here on Science 2.0, though with a little more skepticism) a bizarre study is all the rage - pesticides and other environmental toxins will give your kid a malformed penis and cause autism. And state regulations...prevent it.
This overturns all of epidemiology, right? Now something has to be done. Autism causes might be okay to debate in a reasoned fashion but the public will not stand for giving American men tiny penises. We're already in a new Cold War with Russia and Russian men are supposedly huge.
Well, no, it doesn't turn over anything except the stomaches of people who know how to read a study. They don't actually know if there are any chemicals, toxic or otherwise, involved. Instead, they searched for malformed penises among insurance claims. And those must be caused by environmental toxins, right? It's our old friend the surrogate marker.
How can you claim chemicals are causing autism and have no measurements of chemicals?
Disease clusters have to be factored carefully anyway, especially when it comes to something like autism. If you go to rich areas of Los Angeles, for example, you will find a lot of pediatricians, and you will find a spike in autism diagnoses for kids who move there. Does being rich in Los Angeles cause autism? It does if I write a correlation paper and my credit card payment clears with an open access publisher.
The American Council on Science Health oscillates somewhere between apoplectic and stunned in their coverage. I got on Skype with Ana Simovska and you can tell I was thinking about articles on both direct evidence for inflation and Cosmos, because I couldn't decide what is a better similarly ridiculous metaphor - correlating the rates of "Hello Kitty" dolls or the number of Whole Foods stores in a county to autism. So they used both:
I hate to be mean to peer-reviewed journals but, come on, this is clearly an attention-grab.
Luckily, I suspect the rash of Environmental Working Group and NRDC fundraising claims ('donate now if you don't want your child to have a micropenis') will be offset by legitimate analyses of the actual study. Writing in Forbes, Emily Willingham dissects the story while somehow managing to make no jokes. I applaud her for that.
Dr. Josh Bloom is even more aghast than I am about this study. Because he is a chemist and actually knows what he is talking about, I presume. Unlike the authors of the paper.
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