Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Fearmongering at Fox News

Wow, just wow. An article on Fox News suggests that pesticides are affecting our I.Q. Yet again, a popular news article can be debunked using information only found in that article. How do they decide that pesticides are affecting our I.Q.?

Dr. Paul Winchester, a neonatologist at the Indiana University School of Medicine and director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis, studied the test scores of 1,667,391 Indiana students in grades 3 through 10.

Looking at the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP) exam, Winchester and his researchers found scores for math and language were clearly seasonal, with the lowest scores going to children conceived in June through August.
And how much of an effect did he see?
For the females in the study the difference was a 1 to 1.5 percent drop, and the results were similar for all groups and sexes conceived in May through August.
Ok, 1-1.5%. That's a pretty small effect. But in this case, I won't even try to argue that his effect is too small to be measured. For the sake of argument, I'll agree to it and ask, "But what does this have to do with pesticides?"
"The pesticides we use to control pests in fields and our homes and the nitrates we use to fertilize crops and even our lawns are at their highest level in the summer," Winchester said in a news release.
Ahhh... Well, then. Here we are with the correlation and causation business again. His only reason for asserting this is that we use pesticides at higher rates in June, when all these stupid babies are being conceived. Why not just hypothesize that these children are dumber because of hot dogs? I'll bet there's a lot of hot dogs that get eaten in June. Or perhaps it isn't the conception date that is important, but rather the birth date? Perhaps it has more to do with being born in the depths of winter that makes these children stupid? Frost-bitten brain, perhaps? The point is that there are plenty of models one could come up with that would suggest why children conceived in June are 1-1.5% dumber.

The truth of the matter is that one can't tell why such an observation is being made, and it is rather irresponsible of Dr. Winchester to bandy such a scare-mongering hypothesis about at a news conference.

That said, I wouldn't want a pregnant mother exposed to pesticides (hell, I wouldn't let my wife operate power tools while she was pregnant - I'm all about being careful). There are already plenty of reasons to keep pesticides away from pregnant women:
According to the American Pregnancy Association, even household gardening pesticides are well-known to put pregnant women at high risk for many birth defects, including oral clefts, neural tube defects, heart defects, and limb defects.
But there's no evidence coming from Dr. Winchester that he's discovered another reason to keep pesticides away from pregnant women.


No comments: