A few months ago we looked at a paper that purported to show that watching TV causes autism. Well, that paper has finally been peer reviewed, and therefore published. It’s making the rounds in the media on this historically slow news day.
The idea is that when it rains it drives kids inside to watch television and that watching TV—never mind how—induces autism. The more hours kids spend in front of the boob-tube, the more cases of autism. Since you can’t measure the number of hours of watching TV, you have to do something else. The authors decided that precipitation would be a good proxy. Here are some of the comments from July:
But how can you tell how much TV all these kids watched? You canâ€™t. There is no way to go back to 1970 and count how many hours each baby watched TV. This is a dilemma, because we would really like to test the dose-response. Perhaps there is a proxy? A proxy is a stand-in variable that is so strongly associated with hours of TV watched that itâ€™s almost as good as the real thing. Can you think of any?
How about precipitation? Sure, rain and snow. After all, when it rains, what else is there to do but watch TV? Actually, lots, and when it snows, thereâ€™s even more. But, this is the proxy chosen by the researchers (their Figure 6 will hold some interest for those interested in global warming).
They plotted up maps by county for California, Oregon, and Washington, and colored in counties that had more than median precipitation (from 1990-2001) and then colored those with higher than median autism rates. These colored squares tended to be in the same spot, and is what led them to the conclusion that watching TV causes autism. Case closed.
Mark Lever, chief executive of The National Autistic Society, is properly sanguine about the research. He said, “the latest theory would join a succession of others advanced about the condition and its origins.”
In recent years autism has been linked to factors as varied as older aged fathers, early television viewing, vaccines, food allergies, heavy metal poisoning, and wireless technology, to name just a few.
Some of these theories are little more than conjecture or have been discredited, others seem more promising and are in need of further study. As yet, however, very few have been substantiated by scientific research.
We don’t yet understand what causes autism, although scientists do believe that genetic factors might play a part.
People with autism and their families are naturally concerned to get the right information and there is a lot of confusion and concern over the conflicting theories put forward.
Another guy named Weiss “thinks the results of the study need to be taken with a grain of salt.” To counter that, a man called Lathe said, “Emissions from manufacturing industries, power plants, and from domestic waste incineration generally rise to the troposphere to be diluted into the large volume of the atmosphere. Precipitation can dump this load back on the land, to be absorbed by plants and animals in the food chain.” Not very good meteorology there, because we could equally say that lack of precipitation allows the atmospheric pollution to be worse, causing increases in inhaled ozone, etc. etc.
Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a solid link between rain or TV and autism. The authors of the paper even say “that families more prone to having autistic children may reside in areas with high levels of precipitation, or that such areas might use broader diagnostic criteria for diagnosing autism.” There does seem to have been an increase in the rates of autism, but that increase could very easily be from increased awareness and subsequent diagnoses of the disease.
Nothing has changed between the draft work and the peer-reviewed one to cause me to change my mind about the value of the paper. What I didn’t know before, but I learned from the Post today, is that the lead author and economist Waldman has a son who is autistic. I can therefore understand what motivates him and the desire to find out what happened.