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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Some quick thoughts on science

Pop quiz! Let's test your science IQ.

Question 1: Scientists discover a correlation between rain (environmental factor) and autism in a few specific geographic locations. Should we conclude rain causes autism?

The first news article served up by The Google: "The public shouldn't jump to conclusions because these studies are valuable only after being repeatedly confirmed". Full credit to Mr. Paul Nyhan. Disturbingly, Scientific American offered no such disclaimer.

This kind of result is what I call hypothesis generation. We should not draw conclusions from this study, but the result is at best intriguing enough to suggest that perhaps we should now test the hypothesis that increased rainfall causes autism. For bonus credit: how would you test this hypothesis?

By the way, it's well known that autism is linked to genetics. Environmental triggers may also play a role, but scientists don't yet know what those triggers are (if they exist). Many environmental triggers have been suggested in the past. As far as rain goes, the news reports that I read mostly speculated about sunlight exposure. (I immediately questioned whether mold could be implicated, but this is pure speculation.)

Note that it is very important to read the original study to judge the scientific merits of any claims, as I've grumbled about elsewhere. In today's post, I refer solely to secondary literature (news on the interwebs).

Question 2: Health officials recommend pregnant women and children avoid eating game killed with lead bullets. Spot the logical errors in this news report.

The article as given on CNN has at least two leaps of logic that I see. (The original CDC report might include data that support the assertions made here, but unfortunately I can't seem to track it down to check.)

Final thoughts on vaccines, autism, and toxicity (or, blatantly trolling for the anti-vaccine crowd): I've read some internet rumors that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. might be asked to serve in the Obama administration. Great Humperdinck, no! Anyone who fails basic scientific literacy regarding vaccines and autism (try this or this for critiques) should not be serving in any high-level government role.

What's next, banning aluminum because it's "toxic"? Ooh, ooh -- iodine! Vitamin A! Iron! All poisons promoted by government conspiracies! We're poisoning the children!

Scientific literacy: It's Important.

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