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The Guardian - purveyors of bad science

Posted Jan 14 2009 5:58pm

I’ve watched for awhile as the UK media whips itself up into a frenzy over the latest bit of autism research from Simon Baron-Cohen. I wanted to see if they could manage to curb themselves and their tendency to reduce everything to soundbite. Of course they couldn’t. The idea they could is silly.

However, call me an old Lefty but I thought The Guardian might do a little better than it has. It not only started this silly pre-natal testing storm-in-a-teacup, it continues to push it in the most credulous way.

On 12th Jan Sarah Boseley (apparently a Health Editor) wrote:

New research brings autism screening closer to reality

A piece that says:

New research published today will bring prenatal testing for autism significantly closer…

This is twaddle. And yet, The Guardian published an op-ed piece (well, blog post) today from Marcel Berlins which leads with:

The prospect of a screening test on a pregnant woman predicting her child’s autism is not far away, and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, leader of the Cambridge University research team that developed the test…

Again, twaddle. And twaddle on two fronts.

Here’s the truth stated simply: Baron-Cohen’s work is not going to speed up a pre-natal test for autism. Baron-Cohen did not develop any test.

In a piece in Nature, Baron-Cohen explains:

The Guardian [newspaper] is focusing on the issue of screening. The study is not about screening and it is not motivated by trying to develop the screening test. It was motivated by trying to understand possible causal factors in autism…

So not only is Baron-Cohen not developing a pre-natal test, he is quite clear that his work will not speed up the development of a pre-natal test.

And yet two prominent Guardian columnists are writing as if it was a done deal.

In fact, the misrepresentation of the science involved goes beyond the surface of what Baron-Cohen is not doing but what his work is doing. From the NHS website:

The findings are based on a scientific study of 235 children aged between eight and 10, whose mothers had amniocentesis, a test analysing fluid taken from around a foetus. None of these children were autistic, but those exposed to higher testosterone levels showed higher levels of ‘autistic traits’, such as poor verbal and social skills.

So, lets be clear, none of the kids in this study were autistic – so touting this study as a potential shortcut to a pre-natal test is several steps ahead of itself.

The study itself was in undergone to further test Baron-Cohen’s theory that autism is an ‘extreme male brain’ disorder. It is worth remembering that this theory is contentious even within the mainstream autism science community.

Psychologist Kate Plaisted Grant, also from the University of Cambridge…isn’t convinced that the findings support the underlying theory. “The broader scientific community hasn’t accepted the idea of the extreme male brain,” she says. Fetal testosterone “may create a special brain, but it doesn’t necessarily create a male brain”.

Psychiatrist Laurent Mottron…says that just because males and people with autistic disorders score similarly in autism questionnaires, this does not mean that autistic traits are the same as male traits. Rather, he argues, it just shows that the test cannot discriminate between maleness and autism.

“For me, it’s exactly the same as saying that two things that weigh the same are both made of the same stuff,” he explains.

There is also the distinct possibility that autistic women have not been counted accurately in the past. I know I have read some research on this but I cannot put my hands on it. Maybe someone in the comments can help me out.

The Guardian need to take a step back and screw their collective heads back on. There should be a debate about pre-natal testing for autism but to me, its not a debate to have until it becomes a realistic possibility. The autism community has enough on its plate right now without getting into a purely theoretical debate.

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