On Wednesday, the journal PLoS ONE announced a study suggesting that fish seemed to show autism spectrum gene expression when swimming in water that contained anti-depressants.
Oh? the savvy science writer, might respond. What kind of dose are we talking about here? How profound was the effect - what kind of fish population was used in the study? Did the purported gene expression affect behavior in any way? And - this one leapt to my mind - how would you diagnose autistic behaviors in a fish anyway? I'd actually never heard that fathead minnows were the model of choice.
And does this study tell us anything meaningful about autism at all?
Unfortunately, the resulting coverage suggested that journalists hadn't actually bothered to ask any questions, much less the few I've suggested here. In fact, far too many of stories seemed to simply be repackaged, unquestioning version of the press release itself. How do I know?
Well, the Eurekalert press release quotes lead author Michael Thomas of Idaho State University as follows: "While others have envisioned a causal role for psychotropic drugs in idiopathic autism, we were astonished to find evidence that this might occur at very low dosages, such as those found in aquatic systems."
And here's the Thomas quote from Emma Thomas's story in The Daily Mail: "While others have envisioned a causal role for psychotropic drugs in idiopathic autism, we were astonished to find evidence that this might occur at very low dosages, such as those found in aquatic systems."
Here's the quote from John von Radowitz's story in The Independent (which called the findings 'astonishingo'): "While others have envisioned a causal role for psychotropic drugs in idiopathic autism, we were astonished to find evidence that this might occur at very low dosages, such as those found in aquatic systems."
The local paper, The Idaho State Journal, didn't bother with the fairly short Eurekalert announcement. Instead, it merely reprinted verbatim the press release from Idaho State University. Sigh. At least they didn't put a byline on it as others did. But let's not pretend that any of this qualifies as journalism.
The Eurekalert quote also appears in Drew Andrew's story for Businessweek although he does identify it as a "statement accompanying the study." To be fair, Andrews includes one direct quote from Thomas, suggesting that he may have actually done an interview. And there's one direct quote also in Sara Reardon's New Scientist story too but no meaningful analysis in either.
In none of these stories is there evidence that any of the journalists did a single interview beyond talking to the enthusiastic author of the study. Or asked questions that would put the study in context for readers. Or did any homework so that readers could understand what the study meant - if anything at all. This would be disappointing in any coverage of a public health issue but in coverage of autism in particular - with all the confusion and fears and misrepresentations that surround it - one would hope that journalists would feel an especial need to cover such stories thoroughly and well.
As it turns out, the best coverage comes from science bloggers. The very best can be found at the always terrific Neuroskeptic blog. Here you will find the study analyzed element by element. And you will also find good analysis that suggests this study is probably not that meaningful at all - the doses are unrealistically high, the numbers of fish improbably low, and the genetics murky at best. Quoting here: "I'm not going to get into the question of whether these are really autism genes in humans or whether fish brains are a good model of humans. Those are hard issues. But what's easy to see is that while this set of genes were apparently increased, so were many others. It was not specific to 'autism genes'."
But there's also a first class critique at PLoS Blogs (interestingly enough), where Dorothy Bishop does an elegant job of taking apart both the study and the media coverage as well. The absolute best headline can be found at Dianthus Medical - Holy Carp! Autistic Fish! - and here you'll also find an incisive critique of the coverage, focused on New Scientist in particular. At the Telegraph, Tom Chivers covers it as "Autistic Fish: The Anatomy of a (potential) Health Scare."
In other words, bloggers did the only work worth reading here. It's a case study in how the mainstream media is making itself less relevant every day.
(With many thanks to Ed Yong for calling this to the Trackers attention)
-- Deborah Blum