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Autism: Getting the Science Right in Op-Eds

Autism: Getting the Science Right in Op-Eds

Emily Willingham, autism, Reporting on Health, health journalism, Moises Velasquez-Manoff

In late August, an op-ed piece about autism and inflammation appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review and also was posted online on the Times' website. The core of the piece was that autism could be "most likely" prevented by heading off maternal inflammation using parasitic worms. 

Because I am a scientist and science writer who focuses frequently on autism science, many people brought the piece to my attention, troubled in ways they had difficulty pinpointing, but knowing that somehow, it wasn’t quite…right. 

I agreed and wrote a critique of the op-ed, in part because the NYT didn’t allow comments on the online version. The problems of NYT piece lie primarily in its misrepresentation and misinterpretation of scientific results and how science works. The author of the editorial, Moises Velasquez-Manoff, has a newly published book on the topic of the op-ed, and he had a story to tell, one in which generalizations had starring roles and omissions glared. One of my primary critiques of that article was that it cherry-picked data, generalized where readers needed specificity, and lacked traceable sourcing.

You might think that any journalistic effort, particularly one presenting science — whether opinion or reporting — would by default also require accuracy and necessary caveats. Perhaps I am naïve, but I was astonished to find that both Velasquez-Manoff and scientist Paul Patterson dismissed the critiques about accuracy and sourcing while at the same time acknowledging their validity. Their rationale was that an op-ed doesn’t have to meet a standard of scientific accuracy that, say, a "scholarly" article might. Patterson, who also has a book and whom Velasquez-Manoff frequently cites, wrote on his blog about Velasquez-Manoff’s piece:

The title is provocative and the style is very flashy and not at all scholarly or scientific. He does not back up his claims with footnotes or cite the evidence for the claims in article – there are no data, tables or figures to support the case. But, this is a newspaper Opinion Piece, not a science writer’s blog. A newspaper would not put a scholarly article in the Opinion page of its Sunday edition! 

I read that and was willing to dismiss this exclamatory brushoff of the relevance of accuracy and sourcing as coming from someone with perhaps limited journalism experience. Indeed, Velasquez-Manoff acknowledged my critique in part by belatedly posted a lengthy "annotated" list of sources for the article on his own Website. But then, a couple of days later, I came across something else. In an interview piece posted at Wired.com about Velasquez-Manoff and his book, the author responded to a query about my critique. He says to the interviewer, Brandon Keim (an associate of Velasquez-Manoff, something not disclosed in the piece), "Did I fail to qualify and caveat? Yes. It was an op-ed."

Unlike Patterson, Velasquez-Manoff is trained in journalism. He has a master’s degree in journalism. Yet he seems unaware that op-eds should, as journalistic codes of ethics agree, "present facts honestly and fully," that it is "dishonest to base an editorial on a half-truth."

Really, that’s journalism 101, and writing an op-ed doesn’t confer carte blanche to ignore the fact that we owe our readers accuracy, even if doing so modulates the strength of the op-ed’s argument in some way. Fact-check organizations don’t let political op-eds get away with cherry-picking supportive information and eliding confounders. Why should someone writing a science op-ed expect to do it?

This dismissal of the need for accuracy in an argument wholly focused on science because it’s "just" an op-ed, left me wondering: Do science and scientific arguments have a place in op-eds at all? In the end, I decided that … it depends.

What Velasquez-Manoff was trying to do in his op-ed was to place a science-related hypothesis of his before the world and to argue for its validity. Why would a scientific hypothesis from a nonscientist even find its way onto the pages — virtual or otherwise — of a general readership newspaper?

Obviously, Velasquez-Manoff’s dog in that hunt was to gain attention for his book. But what was the rationale of those who elected to publish it? I suspect the eyeball-magnet buzzword "autism" likely had something to do with it.

Scientific hypotheses aren’t a matter of opinion. They are ideas awaiting support or dispute, not from products of the human imagination but from stubborn, replicated results derived from scientific investigation. The editorial pages of a general readership newspaper simply aren’t the appropriate venue for presenting science in this way. Science isn’t a matter of opinion. Eventually — sometimes over very long periods of time — the facts will or will not out. No amount of editorializing will make them somehow different. 

It’s one thing to use science as suasion, as people have done when weighing the evidence for and against human-driven global climate change or eating organic foods. Those discussions also happen to have widespread political and economic implications, and science is, if anything, a relatively objective bystander, with its various facts and findings trotted out on behalf of one side or other of the argument, and, indeed, cherry picked.

But to dedicate an editorial completely to a scientific hypothesis without offering a reader any real grounding in the nuances and intricacies of the subject at hand--and there’s nothing more intricate than the potential causes of autism — that’s dressing up an op-ed piece in tattered information and trotting it out as science.

Velasquez-Manoff is not the first to offer up opinions and unsourced assertions as scientific fact to support a shaky science-related hypothesis in the op-ed pages. Nicholas Kristof, who appears to have a limited grasp of the science he addresses, has made a little cottage industry of writing chemophobia-laced op-eds in which he warns direly of our stolen futures thanks to "toxins." His output has, in turn produced considerable blowback, including from writers at Forbes and Wired.

These veteran journalists — one has won the Pulitzer Prize — don’t seem to think that writing an op-ed relieves the writer of a duty to the reader to tell the complete story, not just part of it. They don’t seem to think that writing an op-ed excuses a lack of sourcing or qualification. They don’t seem to think that facts and accuracy can be sacrificed to narrative just because, well, it’s an op-ed, you know.

Of course, not all editorials, whether about science or not, adhere to facts, or even truth. Perhaps one of the most famous op-eds of all time, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," even bears a title that’s obviously untrue.

But an argument for Santa Claus is also clearly not based in scientific fact. And op-eds about science require that basis, presented with transparency, or they may as well be about Santa Claus, too.

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Comments

Really glad to see this piece and I plan to circulate it widely. This is such an important issue, the weird double standard that newspapers in particular seem to use for science in op-eds versus elsewhere in the papers. It's such a waste of opportunity to really illuminate an issue. I've written myself about this concern regarding Kristof. Here is a man with one of the best platforms in the world, one of the best opportunities to really educate readers about risk. If he would just do his homework, he might actually make a difference. Thank you for writing this.

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