By Erica Westly | November 6, 2008
Credit: noii via Flickr Creative Commons
Sometimes, I think the New Scientist can be a little sensationalistic, but I thought this editorial was pretty spot on. The author takes reporters to task for overhyping a study that, for some reason, correlated autism cases with rainfall, and includes some ridiculous headlines, the most hilarious of which appeared in the Palm Beach Post. It reads simply, “Autism: Blame It on the Rain.” Like the New Scientist author, I love the Milli Vanilli reference.
Actually, having read the press release and abstract, I’m not so sure the study should have been published in the first place. The lead authors are economists, and economists tend to look at these things differently. For them, making random correlations and then speculating about possible causes for the effects is routine. It’s not so much about proving causation as it is in other fields.
I doubt seriously whether the paper would have been accepted by an epidemiology journal. In fact, I have to wonder where these guys got the idea to examine the precipitation connection in the first place. Did they read about the notion that autism could be triggered by environmental factors and then say, “Hmm, that’s interesting. Maybe it’s because the kids watch too much television, and maybe kids in rainy areas stay inside more?”
As titillating as the environmental trigger idea may sound, though, there isn’t any concrete evidence for it. At all. Most medical researchers agree that 1.) we are not experiencing an autism epidemic. Increased diagnoses do not necessarily mean increased rates, especially when you consider how new the Asperger’s diagnosis is to the mix, and 2.) there is overwhelming evidence suggesting autism is genetic.
True, the exact mechanism is unknown, but researchers are getting closer. I’m not buying the gene-environment interaction argument in this case, at least not in terms of causation. In my opinion, this line of inquiry is no more productive than the refrigerator mom hypothesis of the ’50s.