Misrepresenting Science: The Observer’s Autism Scare Story

The Observer printed an article claiming an as yet unpublished study shows a dramatic rise in the prevalence of autism.

A couple of weeks ago The Observer (UK ‘quality’ Sunday paper) printed an article claiming an as yet unpublished study shows a dramatic rise in the prevalence of autism. They also managed to crowbar in the MMR vaccine as well just to raise the general levels of hysteria.

I ignored the story, just assuming it was the usual rubbish. Another case of misinterpretation, misrepresentation or just plain incorrect reporting that science stories often receive.

While I’m naturally distrustful of these kind of stories, it is exactly the kind of thing that easily enters people’s consciousness. From only causing a small shift in people’s understanding to influencing them to refuse their children have the MMR vaccine, it’s all dangerous misinformation.

Practically, though, as the study is unpublished, it is difficult to rebut. Difficult but not impossible.

Luckily for us BadScience’s Ben Goldacre is on the case. If you’re new to the story the best place to start is with Goldacre’s column in The Guardian where he gives the full details and dismantles the story.

Then when you’re up to speed, check out the update entitled “The Observer still misses the point, and makes a hash of apologising…“. The post finishes with this quote:

“I am pretty jaded and sceptical, but this front page story has completely stunned and astonished me. The misrepresentations and errors went way beyond simply misunderstanding the science, and after digging right to the bottom of it all, knowing what I know now, I have never resorted to hyperbole before, but I can honestly say: this episode has changed the way I read newspapers.”

Well said.

Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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