Diet Coke drama — misleading trends in disability news media

Posted 6 months ago by David McManus
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Science 2.0 founder Hank Campbell had some choice words for epidemiologists and their impact on public media consumption. [Source: Robert Stump via Unsplash]
Science 2.0 founder Hank Campbell had some choice words for epidemiologists and their impact on public media consumption. [Source: Robert Stump via Unsplash]

What ’causes’ disability this week?

Key points:

  • Epidemiologists are people who observe trends and statistics in public health to make informed risk assessments or predictions
  • Fox News, News Corp and the Daily Mail Australia have reported on a new study which found boys diagnosed with autism were three times as likely to have mothers who drank diet soda daily during pregnancy
  • Science 2.0 is the world’s largest independent science communications site, with over 300 million direct readers and a reach approaching one billion

 

Hank Campbell, the founder of Science 2.0, has spoken out about a pattern that he sees as negatively impacting the public understanding of science and health news media.

Mr Campbell addressed the media coverage of research from the University of Texas, which found that males diagnosed with autism were three times as likely to have mothers who drank Diet Coke.

“If you have been in science media for any period of time, you have seen a predictable pattern; epidemiologists look through columns and rows of foods people claim they eat and diseases or lack thereof and if they get enough to declare ‘statistical significance’ they write a paper,” wrote Hank.

“If it becomes a popular article, a bunch of other epidemiologists will rush to ‘replicate’ it.

“It’s why, not only should you not accept a claim that a diet soda in the hands of a pregnant woman causes autism, you should shout it down.

“How bad is the study? It only causes autism in one biological sex, that’s how bad. That is not even a hint of being biologically plausible. It is suspect even for epidemiology, where you can link use of organic food in pregnant women to autism.”

The UT study, published under the title ‘Daily Early-Life Exposures to Diet Soda and Aspartame Are Associated with Autism in Males: A Case-Control Study’ in late August, is the first of its kind to assess offspring autism status relative to the daily maternal intake of diet soda and aspartame during pregnancy/breastfeeding.

News media was quick to report on the research, which was syndicated by News Corp, Fox News journalists and online via Daily Mail Australia, circulating the results which were first published in Nutrients 2023.

In an interview with Fox News Digital reporters, lead author Sharon Parten Fowler, PhD, clarified that the link did not necessarily mean causation.

“Our study does not prove causality — it does not prove that maternal intake of diet sodas and aspartame specifically, during pregnancy or nursing increases a child’s risk of autism — but it does raise a major warning flag,” the adjunct assistant professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio said.

Within 24 hours of the research findings shared by News.com.au, a follow-up story was published about Diet Coke that claimed the drink could impact memory and learning abilities.

Hank Campbell stated that those who consume news media should look for “claims that chewing sugar-free gum causes autism soon — it will happen.”

“That is the problem with the lack of oversight or ethics in epidemiology.

“Using this same bad methodology, some have claimed GMOs cause autism. Some have claimed invisible pollution causes autism and your child got autism because your mother smoked — but only if grandma smoked before age 13.

“Given a choice, I’d stop the pseudo-scientific war against pregnant and new moms, but as a first step let’s stop data-dredged nonsense,” the founder concluded.

 

Did you read the Diet Coke news article? What did you think? Let the team at Talking Disability know!