Out Loud in a Crowd – Everybody Heard

Sam Wang has a piece on autism risks in the Times, and this graph of the real risks versus the risks that get reported in the newspaper is another tribute to Jenny McCarthy:
(Click on the graphic to go to the article and see the big image.) It turns out that the two risks that parents can possibly control, based on real science, are avoiding prenatal stress and early elective C-sections. The non-risk that’s the talk of the town is vaccination.

By the way, as probably the one person writing here who hasn’t given up on Nate Silver, this is the kind of stuff that 538 could be publishing. It’s a piece by a scientist who works in a discipline that’s involved in a popular controversy writing to explain the results of recent research. It isn’t some fringe-dweller with questionable credentials who’s cherry picking this or that result to gin up controversy where there isn’t any. Silver needs to fire Pielke and start commissioning pieces from people writing at sites like Scienceblogs.

60 replies
  1. 1
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    By the way, as probably the one person writing here who hasn’t given up on Nate Silver, this is the kind of stuff that 538 could be publishing.

    Maybe tomorrow. Maybe someday.

  2. 2
    evolved beyond the fist mistermix says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: I’m sure that you’ll acknowledge that it’s hard to live by the rules.

  3. 3
    Marc says:

    So Silver leaves the NYT and they commission Sam Wang? That is how the game is played, folks.

  4. 4
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @evolved beyond the fist mistermix: My favorite Pretenders song.

  5. 5
    Baud says:

    By the way, as probably the one person writing here who hasn’t given up on Nate Silver,

    There is still good in him.

  6. 6
    aimai says:

    Fascinating piece of the article about prenatal maternal stress:

    A highly underappreciated prenatal risk is stress. For pregnant women who take the sometimes-wrenching step of emigrating to a new country, for example, the risk ratio is 2.3. In the fifth through ninth months of pregnancy, getting caught in a hurricane strike zone carries a risk ratio of about 3. Maternal post-traumatic stress disorder during pregnancy is associated with a similar effect. These events are likely to trigger the secretion of stress hormones, which can enter the fetus’s bloodstream and affect the developing brain for a lifetime. Stressors may also lead to maternal illness, the immune response to which may interfere with brain development.

    Stress might account for other findings as well. Recent news coverage has speculated on the influence of air pollutants, which carry risk ratios around 1.4. This risk might be caused by chemicals — or by the stress of living in a poor or crowded neighborhood, where pollution is worse. A larger risk comes from households that already have an older sibling under 1 year of age, where newly conceived children have a risk ratio for autism of 3.4. So sure, parents should avoid smog — but also might think about spacing their children at judiciously chosen intervals.

    Of course dealing with that risk would require dealing humanely and lovingly with pregnant women, regardless of their social or economic status, and there is simply no way that we as a society would do enough about it because that would interfere with the property rights of polluters and abusers–the two main stressors for pregnant women.

  7. 7
    maximiliano furtive, formerly known as dr. bloor says:

    Jesus fuck, the comments over there are a swamp. Don’t get out of the boat, people.

  8. 8
    evolved beyond the fist mistermix says:

    @Marc: The real win for the time would be to hire Wang for “the Upshot”, which is the replacement for 538 at the Times, but this just looks like a random op-ed. Still, there’s a burn there, because Wang is showing how it’s done.

  9. 9
    evolved beyond the fist mistermix says:

    @aimai: My old man, who performed C-sections but did damn few of them and only when absolutely needed, is going to feel some sweet vindication on the elective early C-section part.

  10. 10
    dmsilev says:

    @evolved beyond the fist mistermix: I imagine that Wang’s election-forecasting (which is really just a hobby for him; neurology is his day job) is how he came to the attention of the Times.

  11. 11
    jomike says:

    Silver needs to fire Pielke and start commissioning pieces from people writing at sites like Scienceblogs.

    +1. Ideally, go the ensemble route & commission work based on subject matter. If a single full-time go-to person is required: Jason Rosenhouse.

  12. 12
    Marc says:

    @evolved beyond the fist mistermix: Got to admire the timing as well.

  13. 13
    p.a. says:

    @Baud: you can feel it?

  14. 14
    Mike E says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: And Chrissie Hynde must be in any discussion about the greatest rock guitarists. Also.

  15. 15
    Ramalama says:

    Related but wandering: just watched part 2 of Cosmos on Fox. It’s so fantastic, the show and Neil Tyson, but it’s also fantastical that it’s broadcast on That Network.

  16. 16
    PurpleGirl says:


    From the article:

    but also might think about spacing their children at judiciously chosen intervals….

    You know what helps with this? Birth control, of any type, used consistently.

  17. 17
    Suffern ACE says:

    It’s been awhile since I’ve followed delivery tends, but are pregnant women really having elective c sections 9 weeks early?

  18. 18
    WereBear says:

    I’d add a third one: Vitamin D status.

    Serotonin and vitamin D have been proposed to play a role in autism, however, no causal mechanism has been established. Now, researchers show that serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin, three brain hormones that affect social behavior related to autism, are all activated by vitamin D hormone. Supplementation with vitamin D and tryptophan would be a practical and affordable solution to help prevent autism and possibly ameliorate some symptoms of the disorder.

    Causal link found between vitamin D, serotonin synthesis and autism in new study

    Got picked up on when Somali immigrants in Minnesota, even years after the initial stress, had a highly increased rate of autism. I’m sure it’s multi-factorial, but getting a blood test for D and bringing it up with cheap supplements is medical advice at its best: easy to do, inexpensive, and prevents a lot of bad things.

  19. 19
    GregB says:

    I’ll stick with the opinions of lightly educated celebrities hired solely on the basis of their good looks over some over educated egghead who claims to know how the world actually works with his sciencey big-wordy educatey arrogance.

  20. 20
    Elmo says:

    : @Baud:

    Seen, the thing you did has been.

  21. 21
    IowaOldLady says:

    @PurpleGirl: I had the same thought. But hey, birth control has gone from responsible to slutty so fast that I can’t map the cause and effect.

  22. 22
    debbie says:

    Elusive answers always turn out to be common sense. No wonder there are so many questions.

  23. 23
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    The NIH had a total 2012 budget of $30.86 billion. It spent $169 million directly on autism research. This represents 0.55% of total NIH funding.

    Considering that many autistics will be unable to become fully employed, fully productive citizens for their entire lives it would seem to me that the government might be a bit more interested in prevention and treatment.

    There would also be the benefit of having factual data with which to make the anti-vaxxers STFU.

  24. 24
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @Ramalama: Wait til you get to episode 3, which uses comets as a golf tee for the superstitious & the God-Of-The-Gaps goops & applies the titanium-two-headed Newton-Halley driver of scientific inquiry to send them screaming into the deep rough…

    Which reminds me of the classic golf joke–

    It’s a slow day at the Pearly Gates, so Jesus convinces Peter to beam down to Earth to play a few holes before anyone wakes up.

    At the first hole (par 4, 380 yards) Peter sends a magnificent shot 250 yards straight down the fairway. Jesus then hooks his tee shot into the deep rough. A squirrel emerges from a tree & snatches up the ball; a hawk swoops down & snatches up the squirrel. Passing over the green, the squirrel drops the ball, which bounces twice & plops into the cup.

    Peter whirls around in annoyance & shouts, “Are we gonna play golf or do you just wanna fuck around??”


    For myself, I am all aflutter in anticipation of what new scientific indignities tonight’s episode will inflict upon the godbotherers’ whirledvue…

  25. 25
    Joel says:

    Wang has written unkind things about Silver’s electoral model in the past. I don’t think Silver will bring him in the fold over at ESPN.

  26. 26
    Joel says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate:

    Considering that many autistics will be unable to become fully employed, fully productive citizens for their entire lives it would seem to me that the government might be a bit more interested in prevention and treatment.

    Who do you take the money from? Serious question.

    I’ll also make the point that money is far from the only limiting factor in autism research. There are no viable animal models for autism, for obvious reasons. That means you need human subjects, and clinical research is messy for many reasons, not the least of which being reproducibility.

  27. 27
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:


    Good question. I’d take the money from the MIC. I know: dream on. At the moment research suggests that one in 68 children is born autistic. Other research suggests that the rate is closer to one in 38. The variation is explained in part by variation in states’ record keeping.

    This is something very close to home for me; my son, born in the mid-1980s, is autistic. He’s sufficiently high-functioning to know that he’s fucked. Try that for a life.

  28. 28
    JoyfulA says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: I’d like to see more research on mental illness; that would be a great investment, too. What makes a successful 23-year-old have a psychotic break and never really recover? Why do so many people suffer troughs of deep depression across their life spans? What causes ADHD and ADD, and how can they be prevented?

  29. 29
    Aimai says:

    @evolved beyond the fist mistermix: but that one seems like a weird correlation is notcausation thing. What is the mechanism by which an early c section “causes” this brain scramble? How early is early? What other hidden factors (age of mother/father or other stressors might be co-morbid with early elective c sections. ?

  30. 30
    Lurking Canadian says:

    @Uncle Cosmo: the version I heard had Jesus, Moses and some old homeless guy playing. Moses drives his tee shot right into the water trap, so he raises his driver up, the waters part, and the ball rolls onto the green. Jesus drives hi tee shot into the water hazard, but the ball just skips along the surface of the water and rolls onto the green. Then the old guy shanks it into the woods, with the zoological outcome you describe. Jesus says, “Hey, nice shot, Dad!”

  31. 31
    Barbara says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: My teenaged autie is probably going to end up in the same category as yours, high-functioning enough to know he’s fucked. I think of our current life as the good old days — he’s in a terrific high school, everyone around him still accommodates him with good will and affection, and so the full implications of his differences are not yet fully apparent to him. It’s a heart-breaker.

    I’m not at all convinced any causes will ever be found, especially considering how many different autisms there are. I’d rather see money (as if there will ever be anywhere enough!) put to intervention and supports. A lot of those unemployed adults on the spectrum could be gainfully employed and contributing to society, IF the supports were created and maintained.

  32. 32
    Lurking Canadian says:

    @Aimai: where are people seeing the connection to c-sections? Is that what 9 weeks premature really means? And I am the only one who finds “your twin has autism” as a remarkably useless “risk factor”? Doesn’t that just mean they were both, having identical genetics and environment, experienced the same risk factors?

  33. 33
    RSR says:

    Hurricanes cause autism!* Maybe we can ask Jenny McC. to attack climate change with the same ferocity with which she attacks vaccinations. Or become a pirate.

    *Not intended to be a factual statement.

  34. 34
    Joel says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: I think taking money from MIC would be a huge mistake, and one that would directly damage the prospects for autism research. Microscopy is the heart of neurobiology, and methods/technology development is already deeply underfunded by the NIH in the first place.

    As for supports for people living with autism. I agree wholeheartedly, but that’s not really the purpose of the NIH. What you would probably want to advocate is an extension of those services from HHS. And now would be the time to flex lobbying muscle, given that we’ve recently undergone some major changes to how health care is provided in the US, with more to come.

  35. 35
    Barbara says:

    Somewhat off-topic, but I remember when the big autism news was that toddlers with autism had bigger heads, supposedly reflecting something going awry with post-natal brain development.

    I had to chuckle because at the exact age my kid’s head should have been ballooning in size according to this theory, it stopped growing for, I don’t remember off the top of my head (do have it written down somewhere) but I’m going to say somewhere between six and eighteen months. Enough to startle and concern the pediatrician. Then his head started growing again and all was back to normal, as far as head circumference went.

    So, another day, another autism-causation theory.

  36. 36
    WereBear says:

    @Barbara: A lot of those unemployed adults on the spectrum could be gainfully employed and contributing to society, IF the supports were created and maintained.

    Absolutely, and it extends to just about everyone! It doesn’t matter what the hurdle might be; people can be helped over it.

    Group homes can be assembled where everyone’s challenge can become something another person can help with.

    I know, I’m a liberal bleeding heart nut. But it could be so practical and inexpensive.

  37. 37
    PurpleGirl says:


    taking money from MIC would be a huge mistake,

    MIC stand for Military-Industrial Complex

  38. 38
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Baud: Darth Cheney has not driven it from him fully.

  39. 39
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @WereBear: No matter how inexpensive it is, it will need a few farthings from the Koch Brothers or Pete Peterson to finance, and they have not got a farthing to spare. No, not one.

  40. 40
    ruemara says:

    I’m glad you’ve posted these here. I have a good friend who just discovered that she’s pregnant, but she was raised anti-vaxx. She’s otherwise a great liberal, pro-science, walks precincts and all about justice and truth, but since she never got anything, she’s highly susceptible to nearly every big gov conspiracy out there. Way too many libertarian friends feeding her misinfo links. I don’t want to long distance argue with her, but I do want her to rethink her stance on no vaccines for her upcoming child.

  41. 41
    Jacks mom says:

    It’s almost like there’s some issue keeping Christie from hiring and retaining good staff who would have briefed him on the right language to use in front of a bunch of Zionists.

    I’m sure there’s a woman he can blame it on.

  42. 42
    Ruckus says:

    This is of course a wild ass guess but I’d suggest that someone willing to end a pregnancy quite early by unnecessary surgery may not be all that enthused about the child, or is so controlling as to need to be in charge about everything in life.
    Or more likely those lost days/weeks in relatively stress less development may be very important for those genes not to be turned on wrong. Not remembering but I’d venture that in the context here, just being born is somewhat stressful. On both the mother and the child.

  43. 43
    Barbara says:

    @ruemara: Before you start to try to talk sense into your friend, you need to know that there are actually two different vaccination “theories.”

    One is that the mercury that was used as a preservative causes autism. The mercury has been removed from childhood vaccines that had it (still in adult flu and I guess some others). Though this won’t convince your friend if she has moved on to some of the other chemicals that are included in vaccines (I think I heard some people are now complaining about aluminum or something).

    The other theory was that the MMR vaccine causes autism — that was Andrew Wakefield’s claim and it didn’t have anything to do with mercury, it something about permanent inflammation. So the science debunking that is different from the science about mercury. He’s had his medical license revoked, if that will mean anything to her.

    Some people who are suspicious of vaccines do walk a middle line, maybe you can convince your friend to try that. They skip some vaccines (e.g., the hepatitis shot given to newborns, chicken pox) and ask their pediatricians to modify the rest — for one, they tend to split up the MMR into shots for each disease given separately and spaced apart.

    Good Luck!

  44. 44
    Mnemosyne says:


    I’m not at all convinced any causes will ever be found, especially considering how many different autisms there are.

    Part of the problem seems to be that there are some developmental disorders that have symptoms similar to autism but have a different cause, but they all get lumped in together right now as ASD. I can’t find my links, but I remember reading about a metabolic disorder that can be triggered by a high fever that has the same symptoms as autism but a different cause. So until they can figure out what’s “true” autism and what’s another disorder with similar symptoms, it’s going to be hard to come up with a cause.

    Also, the newest new science (as of a couple of days ago) is all about the cerebral cortex and its development in the womb. We’ll see if it holds up.

  45. 45
    Mnemosyne says:

    @evolved beyond the fist mistermix:

    Technically, my (now ex-)sister-in-law’s 2 c-sections were both “elective,” because they weren’t emergencies. My niece and nephew both have clubfoot and her OB/GYN felt that it would put everyone at too much risk of injury to attempt a vaginal birth.

    My niece and nephew are also both on the ASD spectrum, but that’s due to genetic factors, not necessarily the c-sections. I pretty much knew there was a high risk of at least Asperger’s after I met her family.

  46. 46
    Joel says:

    @PurpleGirl: I was thinking in the context of the NIH budget. My bad.

  47. 47
    Tractarian says:

    Also too, this piece in the NYT is something that seems right up Nate’s alley. It’s not scientifically rigorous, but it’s data-based and actually reveals an interesting insight (when it comes to calling balls and strikes MLB umpires are systematically biased toward pitchers with better reputations).

  48. 48
    Barbara says:

    @Mnemosyne: Are you thinking of mitochondrial diseases? Rhett’s syndrome is another one: it used to be included under the autism spectrum umbrella but because we now know its genetics, it’s not listed there anymore.

  49. 49
    Mnemosyne says:


    I can’t find my search terms anymore — all I remember is that it was something that was triggered by a high fever after the child had been developing normally. I mostly remember it because I then proceeded to get into a particularly stupid argument with someone who was arguing that anything with autism-like symptoms should be classified as autism regardless of its causes.

  50. 50
    Ramalama says:

    @Uncle Cosmo: Ha, that’s good. I have to wait until tomorrow to see the show since we watch online. Which means waiting until the weekend. For some reason we can’t be bothered to watch anything sciency or naturey on weekdays.

  51. 51
    sm*t cl*de says:

    It turns out that the two risks that parents can possibly control, based on real science
    The aberrations in neural development responsible for classic autism have already happened in the first trimester, so “elective c-section” is an illusory correlation.
    Clearly, going on the data, the biggest factor parents can control is shifting to a state like Wyoming where the rate of (reported) autism is dramatically lower.

    There are also controllable factors which aren’t in the chart because they’re too well-established to bother studying. Intending mothers should be up-to-date with vaccinations (to avoid rubella) and need to go off their Epilim if they have epilepsy.

  52. 52
    sm*t cl*de says:

    all I remember is that it was something that was triggered by a high fever after the child had been developing normally

    You’re thinking of the Hannah Poling case — mitochondrial dysfunction.

  53. 53
    Mnemosyne says:

    @sm*t cl*de:

    That’s probably it, then. I knew it was a biology word that started with an “m,” at least. :-)

  54. 54
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @Lurking Canadian: Nice–I’m filing that one away for future reference.

  55. 55
    Mnemosyne says:


    It took a long time and a lot of education, but my (non-autistic) intellectually disabled cousin is able to live on her own and has been working for the same company for the last 20 years. She had a bit of a setback over the summer (I suspect it was partly related to my father’s death and her realization that her parents will die someday, too) but she’s been doing very, very well with a lot of work and support from the rest of the family. So I wouldn’t despair just yet. :-)

    (Intellectually, she’s probably at the level of a fairly bright 12 or 13-year-old, if that helps you with a comparison.)

  56. 56
    jl says:

    Seems like thread died out, but I would be curious about whether, and if so, how, Wang adjusted for probable downward drift in threshold criteria for diagnosis.

    I heard a news report this morning of a new study that looked at regional factors that lead to an increase in dx of autism. One was adoption of standardized tests as a main criteria for school evaluation and reimbursement. Rise in rates of autism dx was very high after adoption of test results as criteria, especially among poor kids, and dwarfed the rise in other areas and groups.

    I can’t find anything about the study in the news online. Did find and article saying that the DSM criteria for diagnosis will change, and will probably be a big fight about that.

    Under New DSM, Autism Diagnoses May ‘Significantly Decrease’By Michelle Diament
    Disability Scoop

  57. 57
    Barbara says:

    @jl: There already WAS a big fight about the change in the DSM definition. Fred Volker, a very high-profile autism expert from Yale, quit the DSM committee in protest because he thought the new definition would lead to underdiagnosing. He did a research project to prove his point, and his results were highlighted in a NY Times article. Didn’t help, the new edition has the new definition.

    And guess what, preliminary, informal reports are coming in that the numbers are now dropping, implying that Volker’s predictions were correct. I don’t think they’ll be 1 in 68 in a couple of years. So what is the true incidence? I don’t think we’ll ever know since the definition is ever-changing, and has never been applied consistently, anyway.

    There definitely are regional differences. One of them is, New Jersey has a high incidence rate because it’s known for good services and so families with children with autism move there.

    And Mnemosyne, thanks for the story about your cousin. Good to know there are reasons for some optimism.

  58. 58
    Donut says:


    This is what I don’t get. Silver is apparently spending all kinds of dough on hiring full time staff for this deal, at least that’s the impression I have, but couldn’t he be throwing some scratch in the direction of lots of actual scientists – biologists, oceanographers, climatologists, economists, sociologists, anthropologists and the like, who are dutifully paying their dues, slaving away at low-paid post-docs or adjunct faculty positions? Surely a few phone calls and emails and some small amounts cash could find you some people like that? You know, talented people who can write about the way they use statistics and math in their research in an accessible way…? Gosh, I’d even start by emailing a guy like Tom Levenson, who’s certainly known to appreciate and teach good science and good writing and is approachable and connected to any number of super-science-y types? Just sayin.

  59. 59
    jl says:

    @Barbara: Thanks for the info.

  60. 60
    jl says:

    @jl: And I’ve been wondering the same thing. Seems to me that Silver has enough brand name recognition that he could hire at least some obscure subject matter experts and help them develop their own style of Silver number crunching analysis.

    From a commenter’s link last night to RealClimate, the political science climate guy does not seem to know what he is talking wrt to statistical analysis of climate time series, but is willing to blow hard around like he does. He goes public with accusations that climate scientists are not using ‘established methods’ of time series statistical analysis for studying extreme events and tail distributions. And what would those ‘established methods’ be with nonstationary time series with trends and cycles? I don’t know of any ‘established methods’. From what I saw, in the absence of ‘established methods’ the climate scientists, are using simulation techniques that are not hard to understand at all. A guy like that on board is going to stink up the joint, and sooner more probably than later.

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