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Sunday, October 22nd 2006

Don't Blame The TV Yet!

Remember the recent study from an economist and sociologist from Cornell blaming television for autism? Well, a Time magazine opinion piece takes it to task,

Their oddly definitive conclusions: “Approximately 17% of the growth in autism in California and Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s was due to the growth of cable television,” and “just under 40% of autism diagnoses in the three states studied is the result of television watching due to precipitation.”

Result of? Due to? How can these researchers suggest causality when no actual TV watching was ever measured? “The standard interpretation of this type of analysis is that this is cause and effect,” Waldman insists, adding that the 67-page study has been read by “half a dozen topnotch health economists.”

Could there be something to this strange piece of statistical derring-do? It’s not impossible, but it would take a lot more research to tease out its true significance. Meanwhile, it’s hard to say just what these correlations measure. “You have to be very definitive about what you are looking at,” says Vanderbilt University geneticist Pat Levitt. “How do you know, for instance, that it’s not mold or mildew in the counties that have a lot of rain?” How do you know, for that matter, that as counties get more cable access, they don’t also get more pediatricians scanning for autism? Easterbrook, though intrigued by the study, concedes that it could be indoor air quality rather than television that has a bearing on the development of autism.

H/T Kevin, MD