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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Point \ Counterpoint

    Michael Waldman, an economics professor at Cornell University, has come under fire for issuing a press release indicating a strong statistical correlation between the amount of television a child watches and the likelihood the child will be diagnosed with autism. Critics contend that Waldman needlessly worried parents without enough proof, but some say economists can offer useful contributions in fields beyond macroeconomics. What should the role of economists be?

    Economists get their ‘freak’ on

    Professor Waldman may have made a mistake by publishing a paper that suggested a causal relationship between television watching and autism, but we need not let one researcher’s premature reports give all adventurous economists a bad rap.

    Economists are well trained in statistical analysis. They are people whose careers are built on measuring how one variable affects another. Why not funnel that training into research that tells us more than how income changes consumption?

    Sure, Waldman could have included a specialist in autism research on his team, and, yes, it’s quite possible his findings are completely inaccurate. But Waldman’s project was not to prove conclusively that TV causes autism, but merely to shed light on the possibility, based on real statistical correlation.

    And Waldman would have succeeded in turning attention to the possible relationship between autism and TV viewing if those who specialize in the area had taken the time to debunk such a relationship.

    Interestingly, the backlash against Waldman and other economists has come primarily from academics in other fields who feel their toes are being stepped on.

    And it may be true. Economists are increasingly stepping out of their classic fields, responding to a public interested in new solutions that other academics have been pondering for years.

    Interestingly, some of the most recent groundbreaking work conducted in the fields of education, crime and cultural anthropology hasn’t been done by academics in the respective fields, but by economists eager to apply their training in statistical anaylsis to new realms.

    Caroline Hoxby’s work on competition’s effect on public schools, Steven Levitt’s research on police and crime prevention and Tyler Cowen’s exploration of globalization and culture have provided extremely valuable insights. And all three of them have a doctorate in economics.

    In fact, the sheer popularity of books like Levitt’s “”Freakonomics”” illustrates how much demand there is for economists to turn their statistical magnifying glass to subjects outside of their historical bread and butter.

    Academics also attack these adventurous economists for publishing information that may be harmful to consumers. In the case of Waldman and his ill-advised, non-peer-reviewed press release, critics are decrying his report for feeding parents information that is misleading and potentially dangerous.

    Of course, such criticism relies on the assumption that parents are, to say the least, idiots, and that they can’t follow up on an economist’s report by calling an autism research center to check the credibility of certain findings.

    If an economics paper was released tomorrow charging causation between guitar playing and arthritis, I’d be intrigued, but I can’t believe my behavior would change before consulting, say, a doctor.

    It’s true: Economists would probably do well to subject their research on, say, autism to the same kind of peer reviews that any neuropsychologist does when conducting new work on a topic. There isn’t any reason economists should continue to utilize their strength in statistical analysis to explore relationships that often go unnoticed.

    Stan Molever is a philosophy senior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

    Researchers beware! Economist enters the field

    UA students, as future researchers and consumers, need to be more cautious when looking at research and the methods employed in that research. With an economist now claiming that TV viewing may cause increased rates of autism, based only on statistical methods and no clinical trials, the field of research is at peril.

    The one word researchers can use to gain national attention is autism. With rates of autism skyrocketing among United States children, any researcher who can find a reason is research gold.

    Causes of autism have included “”frigid”” mothers, vaccinations and, now, TV. While a young child watching less TV is harmless, not receiving childhood vaccinations because of the bogus fear they cause autism has put our children at risk.

    One glaring example is the mumps outbreak that occurred among college students last year. It was believed this rare virus sprung up among students who grew up during a time when parents were terrified to get their children vaccinated out of fear it would cause autism.

    “”I don’t pay attention to research unless it comes from a reputable source,”” said Sharon Evans, former coordinator for the San Diego chapter of the Autism Society Asperger’s Support Group and parent of an autistic child.

    She continued, “”When you begin to realize that (autism) is a complex condition with a lot of neurological components, there are no easy answers.””

    As such, a simple statistical analysis does not hold up to methodological rigor. Furthermore, statistics can be manipulated to fit a certain hypothesis, as evidenced by the posters citing 70 percent of UA students as moderate drinkers.

    Clinical trials are the only way to examine complex quandaries like the causes of autism.

    While simple correlations and statistical analyses can be a start, if a researcher really wants to examine the link between TV viewing and autism, a randomly selected group of parents should not allow its babies to watch TV. The rates of autism among this group should then be compared to the rates of autism among a control group.

    The only research on autism epidemiology that has withstood the test of time, in fact, has been clinical trials comparing rates of autism among fraternal and identical twins. The results indicated that heredity plays the biggest role in autism.

    And so, as we embark on our own research projects, we have a responsibility to employ methodologically-sound techniques. When media reports cite some new scientific breakthrough, we as students educated at a research-intensive institution need to analyze the methods employed in that research before making decisions as consumers.

    Furthermore, we as college students have the responsibility to educate others on how to examine research. That way parents don’t have to play the blame game when dealing with the multitude of other challenges inherent in an autism diagnosis.

    Jessica Wertz is a senior majoring in family studies and human development and psychology. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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