Sunday, July 22, 2007

Observer Gives a PoMo Clarification: Retract Already

Cat springs out of birthday cake with suprise notice announcing, You're AdoptedThe Observer deserves sackcloth and ashes for its autism, MMR coverage. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) embarrassed itself by uncritically reproducing that 1 in 58 figure but at least it had the good grace to take a piece by Dr Ben Goldacre that criticised the media coverage of this issue.

Bloggers have offered thoughtful criticism, snarked and ridiculed this on-going story but still it continues because we don't have opinions that should be noted. Baltimore Sun offers an intriguing argument that bloggers are ruining quality mainstream journalism:
the Internet siphons audiences and revenue from the media outlets that can give citizens a voice, causing them to shrink and further impairing the media's democratic power.
Apparently, there is an argument that in a time of contracting revenues, newspapers offload science/environment/health reporters because they don't sell papers and any actual experience/knowledge is not valued.

So, as one of the more respectable representatives of the MSM, The Observer had the opportunity to do the mature, right thing and retract Denis Campbell's New health fears over big surge in autism [Edited: July 24; new URL as original story removed from Observer archive.]for:
  • inappropriate linkage (MMR and autism)
  • spectacular over-emphasis of a particular figure (the 1 in 58, ignoring the particulars of the tool etc.)
  • failing to contact principal parties (shoddy journalistic practice)
  • failing to disclose relevant information (too many examples)
  • plain being wrong.
Instead, they have compounded matters by issuing one of those PoMo clarifications, the sort that reads like an apology if you were offended but the fault lies with you for being offended/picky about the boring science/significance of the statistics. After all, according to Ben Goldacre, Holford Watch, Anthony Cox and Mike Stanton, they were only mostly wrong on most points.

Seriously, The Observer should stop faffing about with this story, they're just compounding the errors and the insult. At the risk of sounding all blogger and undemocratic, their clarifications are inadequate and cannot begin to address the problems with their coverage. As an american friend recently commented to me: Retract already.

Related material

Dr Eric Fombonne delivers a presentation to a conference that addresses the issue of whether there is an epidemic of autism: answer 'No'. 1 hr+ talk, slighly dodgy soundtrack and the slides are tricky to read but it is a good presentation. The site has a lousy interface: you need to load the home page, select conference online and Fombonne is Day 1: Session 2.

The Fombonne presentation is excellent if you can persevere. It discusses prevalence v. incidence; changes in case definition and how this impedes comparison with other studies; changes in the age of diagnosis and its implications for recording figures; and issues relating to statistical power.

If I really can't persuade you that you need to take the time to listen to Fombonne for an hour, Autism Speaks offers interviews with experts who say more or less the same thing in nicely edited 90s to 5min pieces. Both Drs Insel and Volkmar skilfully avoid the loaded, emotive, sensationalist questions lobbed at them by their interviewers and explain that there is no autism epidemic. They both give a good basic overview of the changes in diagnostic criteria (including the development of criteria that embrace a range of IQs); the difference between an educational label of autism (triggers desirable services) and a clinical diagnosis of autism etc.

Dr Insel does a nice job of distinguishing prevalence and incidence in The Increase in Autism Diagnosis.

Dr Volkmar gives a good overview of why there is no autism epidemic in The Increased Rate of Autism Diagnosis.

But, seriously, if you want the inside track on what is so wrong with the figures bruited about by The Observer and precisely why it behoves the researchers to be so careful in evaluating them, listen to the Fombonne presentation.

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