Once again, a study with no real scientific conclusion has been conducted. An unpublished study conducted by Cornell University came to the conclusion that watching television at a young age might cause autism. Apparently this is what passes for a study at health economics conferences.
“We are not saying we have found the cause of autism, we’re saying we have found a critical piece of evidence,” Cornell researcher Michael Waldman said in a column in Slate.
However, “might” doesn’t sound very critical.
My mother worked in Exceptional Student Education (ESE) with autistic children for years. Through that time, I met many children with autism, as well as their families. All of the children I have met have had older or younger siblings who are perfectly healthy. The healthy children probably watched the same amount of television as their autistic brothers or sisters.
The scientists who conducted this study -Waldman and his colleagues from Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management – measured cable subscription data in relation to autism rates. There was no way for them to measure the amount of television watched by 1- to 3-year-olds, which is the age that most children are diagnosed with the spectrum of diseases known as autism. Waldman assumed if residences have cable television, then young children must be watching it. But who can resist more than 100 channels at any age?
Waldman found that autism rose in counties in California and Pennsylvania almost parallel to cable television subscription. The specious conclusion derived from that data:
“Approximately 17 percent of the growth in autism in California and Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s was due to the growth of cable television.” And since television has grown in popularity in the past decades, that, of course, must correlate to the fact that autism has risen through the years.
It’s true that autism rates have increased, but there could be many reasons for the increase other than the consumption of TV.
In 1970, one in every 2,500 children had autism. Now one in every 170 children has it. However, a likely reason for the increase is better detection. Through the years, doctors have become much better at detecting autism – in the not too distant past, autism was not a known condition. Also, medical advancements relating to the diseases, as well as Hollywood films about the savant variety of autistics, have caused the public to be much more aware of the disease and its effects on human behavior.
TV doesn’t explain autism, and neither does genetics.
“The identical twin of a child with autism has only a 70 percent to 90 percent chance of being similarly afflicted,” according to an article in Time magazine.
“They ignore the reasonable body of evidence that suggest that the pathologic process behind autism probably starts in utero (long before the baby is born),” Drexel University epidemiologist Craig Newschaffer said in the Time article.
A reasonable understanding among the scientific community – that autism is not completely explained by genes – does not make it right for scientists such as Waldman to throw out guesses and make studies out of them. To rely on uneducated guesses – such as the idea that television is the culprit of serious mental handicaps – is especially damaging because it does not contribute to actually fighting autism and improving the lives of those who suffer from it.
Next time scientists make a claim, they should at least make sure that the conclusion they derive from their evidence is backed up by reason, logic and rationality.
Candace Kaw is a sophomore majoring in mass communication.