Evolution has come up with a clever way to get us to raise our kids: Bribery. Those puffy cheeks, big ol’ eyes and impossibly small hands, all of those baby-ish things trigger a payment of hormones that lock us down with love and pride and all the rest. Babies are very good at this, except when they’re not. Many of the early hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders, like reluctance to make eye contact, delayed communication and unwillingness to smile, are most pointedly defects of affection. Beyond all the other obstacles, this must be the toughest part about raising a child with autism: to lose countless hours of sleep and invest so much of yourself, and still to have those emotional payouts withheld.To deal with all the effluvium that comes with being a parent without getting the gurgly cuteness.
The landscape is changing. As it is increasingly recognized as its own class of disorder – or spectrum of disorders to be more precise – autism can be identified early and managed effectively. An independent and functional adulthood is not only possible, it is approaching the norm. Autism communities have come together to offer support, lobby for fair treatment, and have begun to question how we see the condition, arguing that autism today is treated much like left-handedness in centuries past and therefore the question should be framed in terms of civil rights rather than medical intervention. Because its acceptance is so new, few historical or contemporary role models exist with diagnosed autism, but strong cases have been made for Andy Warhol, Glenn Gould and Charles Darwin.
While we know a lot more about the disorder than we used to, we know nearly nothing about what causes it. In the absence of a conclusive answer, distress over a child’s health can understandably lead a parent to strike out at the first available target. Thanks to some fraudulent science and the media acumen of the fourth best actress in Scary Movie 3, it was decided that that target should be vaccines. But nobody knew how, so they invented explanations. First, it was argued that a vaccine overloads a baby’s immune system. It doesn’t. Next, the vanishing amounts of mercury used stably as a preservative was assumed to be the cause. It wasn’t, but vaccine makers switched to a non-mercury-based preservative anyway. Unsurprisingly, the switch had no impact on autism rates. Having exhausted other possibilities, today’s argumentative tactic is indistinguishable from how an eight-year-old deals with the prospect of a monster under the bed.
Which, finally, brings me to the news of the day. High fructose corn syrup has been suggested as the overriding cause of autism. Oh boy. Headlines, particularly in science, are often arresting and sometimes precise, but rarely both. In this case, a headline, “New Study Links Autism to High Fructose Corn Syrup, was false on two counts. First, and this is fairly pedestrian, it was a review, not a study. A study presents original research the way a musician’s album presents new songs, while a review summarizes the knowledge and opinion of the time, more like a Now! compilation. It’s a petty thing to bring up, but I mention it because this is an easy thing to get right, and it allows me to point out that the writer got exactly one word into the article before making a factual error (The headline has since been revised to a more innocent-sounding question).
Second, the review didn’t very well link anything to anything. This is the fault of the scientists, and also the journalist for not seeing through this malarkey. Their argument is long and laborious, twisting and contorting over itself to try to link High Fructose Corn Syrup with high levels of mercury, without citing any evidence to this effect. From there, they repackage the threadbare arguments of the anti-vaccine nitwits, nattering something about mercury, gene expression, oxidative stress and neuroplasticity. The key piece of evidence here, which they invoke 12 times in a span of 4 pages, is a paper they themselves wrote, based on an experiment that other people have tried -and failed- to replicate. The bottom piece in this improbable game of Jenga is “because I said so”.
I could go on, and many others do. But I’m not here to do point-by-point takedowns of isolated research papers, and you’re not here to read that. If you are, I apologize and redirect you here. If you prefer sloppy writing with the possibility of dick jokes, read on, you crazy diamond.
The science is wrong, or at least conspicuously sloppy, and should not have been published. Bad money will follow good, as science has to sweep under this particular bed to prove that there is no monster. But the science isn’t the nut of the problem, the journalism is. When this kind of article makes claims that high fructose corn syrup is the next BPA and makes oblique comparisons between the corn syrup-autism quackery of today and the tobacco-cancer claim of a half century ago, it becomes obvious that it’s a bald-faced vendetta against the concept of Nebraska. There are plenty of reasons to dislike corn syrup: it’s probably less healthy than sugar, it tastes worse, and it is inordinately cheap because of economically and environmentally indefensible subsidies. But it doesn’t cause autism, the argument against it is poorly served by being aligned with such a sage as The Donald.
Sloppy health reporting is a big deal. In the recesses of the internet, there will always be crackpots with cockamamie theories. There will always vulnerable audiences to hear it, few more vulnerable than anguished mothers trying to understand why Timmy won’t smile. But those mothers tend not to seek parenting advice from crackpots or the Journal of Clinical Epigenetics. They read the news, and when good news outlets turn their bullshit detectors off, they publish crackpot ideas as though they are facts. To be fair, most crackpot ideas come and go without doing as much damage as this vaccine snafu. How this will play out in the public sphere depends on how the media continue to pick this up, and whether Kate Upton is available as a potential spokesperson for this stupid, stupid cause. A lot needs to happen in order for a conspiracy theory to look legitimate, and bad writing is not the only thing. But for a giant step backwards in autism research, for thousands of vaccines to be refused, and for infants born in fancy hospitals in 2012 to die of 19th-century maladies, you need sloppy news.