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February 27, 2007

Newsflash: Rain Causes Autism

Rain Excuse me while I try to control my knee-jerk reaction to today’s front-page Wall Street Journal article Is an Economist Qualified To Solve Puzzle of Autism? In a nutshell: Cornell University economist Michael Waldman noticed a correlation between rain and snow in Oregon, California and Washington:

The more it rained or snowed, the more likely children were to be diagnosed with autism.This realization soon led Prof. Waldman to conclude that something children do more during rain or snow -- perhaps watching television -- must influence autism.

I encourage you to read the article to get the whole story (plus a great tutorial on instrumental variables research--who knew?) and draw your own conclusions. In the meantime, allow me to point out a few data points of my own:


  1. The prevalence and mysteriousness of a particular disorder correlates strongly with the number of experts, from whatever field, who have all the answers.
  2. The more prevalent and mysterious a certain disorder, the sexier, from a professional standpoint. Nobody is going to win a Nobel Prize for curing toe fungus.
  3. Over time, you can probably predict the pendulum swings between nurture (bad parenting, TV watching, diet) and nature (genetics) to explain autism and a host of other medical conditions.  Nurture always gets more play, because, let's face it--blaming people is more fun.
  4. By my calculations, the more time a child, autistic or not, spends watching TV, the less time he or she is in fact interacting meaningfully with other people. Tell me I’m wrong here--TV may or may not be a factor in causing autism, but human contact sure is when it comes to helping autistic children develop meaningful relationships.
  5. Has anyone else found a sample size of one, even if he is the child of a renowned economist, to be statistically valid? I watched a lot of Flintstones as a child growing up in New York. Case closed.

I'll leave it to you to debate the finer points, but here is my conclusion: if you don't like someone else's science, go out and make some of your own.


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