Researchers, the Press, and Interpreting the Implications of Research

The relationship between researchers and the press is a complicated one. On one hand, researchers rely on the press to generate excitement about their research — the kind of excitement that sometimes leads to funding, and that probably makes it easier to recruit subjects into new studies. On the other hand, once the interview is over, it’s hard to control how one’s research is (mis)represented in the press.

In this regard, check out this commentary by renowned autism researcher, Simon Baron Cohen, in The Guardian:

“Our research was not about prenatal screening for autism”

Your front-page article on 12 January was given the headline “New research brings autism screening closer to reality” and the strapline “Call for ethics debate as tests in the womb could allow termination of pregnancies”. It showed a photo of a foetus, which was given the caption, “The discovery of a high level of testosterone in prenatal tests is an indicator of autism.” And inside the paper a double-page spread was devoted to the details of the study, and given the headline “Disorder linked to high levels of testosterone in the womb”.

All four of these statements are inaccurate. The new research was not about autism screening; the new research has not discovered that a high level of testosterone in prenatal tests is an indicator of autism; autism spectrum disorder has not been linked to high levels of testosterone in the womb; and tests (of autism) in the womb do not allow termination of pregnancies.

(Here’s the original Guardian article to which Prof. Baron Cohen refers here: New research brings autism screening closer to reality.)

It’s a wonderful response from Prof. Baron Cohen; it’s fair-minded, succinct, and clear.

Two ethical points need to be made, here:

1) As we’ve suggested before, health researchers have an ethical responsibility to correct media reports that misrepresent their research in ways that seriously misleads the public. This article is a good example of a health researcher living up to that responsibility.

2) It’s not so clear that, in general, the line of defense offered by Prof. Baron Cohen is a workable one. Baron Cohen writes, “The new research was not about autism screening.” Fair enough. But it’s not clear that that fact supports Baron Cohen’s denial of the Guardian’s claim that Baron Cohen’s research “brings autism screening closer to reality.” Any study that looks at the causes — particularly, causes detectable in or associated with traits detectable in foetuses — is at least contributing, however indirectly, to the possibility of eventual prenatal testing. Whether that’s a very good thing or a very bad thing, of course, is another topic.

~ by Nancy Walton on January 22, 2009.

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