Thursday, January 28, 2010

On Highly Misleading News Articles

Catching up on a newsfeed, I came across this article. Suffice it to say I wasn't impressed -- at all.
In essence, the article reports data from the National Birth Defect Registry and notes that "over 60%" of autistic children entered into their database had some form of structural birth defect as well as an autism diagnosis. I was pretty surprised at this news -- just not by the fact that the number was so high.

My surprise was at two things: One, that they considered this news... and, two, that the number was so low.

You see, the registry relies on parents to input data on their children. Specifically, it requires parents to register their children with birth defects.

Obviously, this means that not every child with a birth defect gets entered. More importantly, parents will only enter their children if they believe that said children have birth defects.

Now... how many parents of autistic children consider autism a birth defect?

The news story suggests that the answer is higher than I thought. Of course, it may just be that some of the remaining 40% have other issues. I don't know -- I haven't seen the data.

This, of course, is what is known as selection bias. More specifically, it's a blatant case of sampling bias.

In other words -- why the heck is this news?

The answer: media sensationalism. Frankly, publication of this article fails pretty much any accepted standard of journalistic ethics, specifically because of accuracy standards and the harm limitation principle. On the other hand, that's never stopped the publication of countless other sensationalized articles...

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