BREAKING NEWS: The Internet Causes Autism!

Internet and Autism

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As the above graph clearly shows, the number of reported autism cases in the United States directly correlates with the size of the Internet.

Holy crap! The Internet is causing autism!

How can those rich brainiacs at Google and Microsoft sleep at night, knowing their technology is somehow polluting our children’s bodies with dangerous toxins? At this rate, by 2068 every single person in America will have autism! This is an outrage!

Why haven’t the major news networks caught on to this? Obviously they are in bed with the big pharmaceutical companies who want this information suppressed from the public eye!

Email your relatives and spread the word! Don’t use the Internet!

Alright, settle down.

This is obviously a joke. While the data in the graph is indeed true (Sources: Pingdom, JAMA), the implied relationship between autism rates and the size of the Internet is entirely fictional.

But the data appears to make a very good case, doesn’t it? The size of the Internet is strongly proportional to the number of autism cases in the United States. This much is true. But I can just as easily make the claim that autism is linked to hybrid car popularity, gas prices, global warming, or Souja Boy album sales.

What we have here is a classic example of a common and potentially dangerous logical fallacy known as “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” or “false cause”. To echo the tired statistical adage, “correlation does not imply causation”.

Like "The Clapper" only more lame

Like "The Clapper" only more lame

When I was in high-school and driving for the first time, I quickly started to notice something very peculiar. Occasionally while driving, I would see street lights suddenly flicker on and off in my presence. I was intrigued, and started paying more and more attention to this.

It became so prevalent that I was able to actually predict when certain lights would turn off. I would frequently joke with my passengers, claiming I had some sort of “Powder”-like mental phenomenon.

“See that street light over there? Just a sec – I’ll turn it off.” And ‘bzzzt’, in a few seconds it would turn off. It was fun, chicks dug it, but secretly I knew I didn’t have any special powers. It’s all science and statistics!

Years later I discovered that SLI (street light interference) is actually a very common paranormal belief. Subscribers believe “SLIders” have the ability to turn on and off common street lights and other fluorescent lights using a hidden mental power. Apparently I was unknowingly part of a growing and powerful underground group of psychomentalists, whose only power is to annoy nighttime bicyclists.

The anticlimactic truth is that street lights go through a natural “cycling” phase as they age. Coupling this with faulty or oversensitive sun-light sensors and you have yourself a crack-pot theory. The narcissistic SLI affect is further amplified by something called “confirmation bias”, the tendency to only retain evidence to support an already accepted hypothesis.

Confirmation bias is sneaky. Psychics and alternative medicine pushers just love to use this common logical fallacy to their advantage. In fact, investigator James Randi in a 1991 study of psychic power found that people tended to maintain a strong selective memory toward psychic “hits” and tended to forget or ignore incorrect psychic predictions. You can easily extend this idea to tackle most paranormal or supernatural phenomena. (One of these days I’ll write a post on “Bible Codes”. In my undergrad I wrote a “Bible Code” program in MATLAB – unsurprisingly there are just as many interesting “hits” in Harry Potter as in King James.)

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The lesson here is to not haphazardly assume an inferred explanation from your data. In the example of SLI, a simple test would show that only a handful of specific street lights flicker, and that they continue to flicker whether or not a “SLIder” is present. Science may be a downer sometimes, but no one guaranteed the truth was exciting.

It can be especially difficult at times to not fall victim to these kinds of logical fallacies; most modern superstitions are a result of “false cause” and “confirmation bias”. But how do you recognize them?

Consider one of my favorite “false cause” examples: “Sleeping with your shoes on causes headaches.”

Kinda makes sense. In fact, if you pay attention you’ll notice this observation might indeed seem true based on your own personal experiences. The last time you woke up with shoes on, did you have a headache? Some of you are nodding. But there’s a hidden factor here, isn’t there? Alcohol intoxication. A late night with Jack Daniels is going to increase both your chances of sleeping in your shoes and waking up with a hangover. The two resulting consequences are certainly related, but only indirectly through a common variable.

Need another example? I recently saw a TV ad for Stouffer’s microwavable lasagna that went like this:

“Studies show that kids who have regular family dinners tend to get better grades. Stouffer’s Easy Express is ready from the microwave in under 20 minutes. So you can make something that’s good … in so many ways.” Yikes. This one makes a couple of mistakes.

The ad’s message is that kids who eat family dinners get better grades, therefore buy Stouffer’s microwave lasagna and your stupid kid won’t fail algebra. Really? I can just see the concerned mother explaining to the school’s counselor: “I don’t understand why he’s still failing! We eat a lasagna family dinner every night! Should we try the meatloaf?”

The two beneficial consequences, family dinners and good grades, are most likely the result of a linking variable, like a strong, healthy family life. A kid who’s running around the Taco Bell parking lot every night to avoid his drunken step-dad and drug-infused mom probably isn’t going to study for tomorrow’s biology test. (Ironically, if Stouffer’s had a true claim here, you kid’s chem grades would probably rise as their gym grades fell.)

But what if there is no linking variable? Like my autism/Internet link, some things appear to be related, but simply aren’t. The connection, even one that is extremely complex, might be nothing but a chance coincidence. The satirical religion Pastafarianism parodies this fallacy with their hilarious implication that “with a decrease in the number of pirates, there has been an increase in global warming over the same period. Therefore, global warming is caused by a lack of pirates.” Makes you appreciate BitTorrent a little more, doesn’t it?

"Bad Tips Sinks Ships"

"Bad Tips Sink Ships"

Unfortunately, it is very easy to make incorrect and erroneous conclusions regarding some very important issues. Medical science is not immune to this. (I make funny.)

Despite claims by very vocal celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, there actually has not been a scientifically proven link between autism and childhood vaccines. People like McCarthy will jump at the chance to brandish a graph showing a correlation between Thimerosal usage and autism rates. But like so many others before her, McCarthy is making a very large logical fallacy.

This normally wouldn’t be that big of a deal to me; I see people make logical fallacies almost every day. But thousands of concerned parents aren’t getting their children vaccinated based on these false claims. Now this actually is a serious issue!

So the overall lesson is to keep those wits sharp. Apply your data responsibly. And for crying out loud, vaccinate your kids!

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Comments (6) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Steph
    4:45 PM on November 30th, 2009

    – I have to comment since you made a jab at “alternative medicine..” haha, sorry! Don’t scorn at alternative medicine, so much of our medicine is derived from roots in other cultures’ medical traditions and many of the practices that we now accept as common Western procedure were years ago considered a load of crock. You (we) literally have Asprin today because people in 400 B.C. were using bark and leaves from willow trees to cure headaches. If you saw someone doing that now you’d surely unknowingly call them crazy but we now derive the same exact active ingredient for 99% of the world’s Asprin. 25% of pharmaceutical drugs in the US are plant-derived; these cultures you’re dismissing just discovered them first and have been using these methods for up to 4,000 years. Just because it’s not the method of the culture you were raised in that doesn’t automatically make it wrong, you don’t know the first thing about most of these “alternative” methods so you should learn a little more before you just brush them off as conformation bias. 80% of the world uses herbal medicine, just because you don’t and our scientific community doesn’t publish their benefits as mainstream as the drug advertisements we see every 5 minutes on TV, that doesn’t disprove anything. Considering the huge western pharmaceutical industry in this country and that most doctors are backed by huge pharmaceutical machines (not to mention that next to Australia we’re the only country in the world that allows drugs to be advertised on TV and in the media), so much of our culture and economy is centered around prescription drugs – throw in ideas like holism, self-healing, and natural methods and these pharmaceutical power-houses probably won’t be too happy. The medical field is a lot more complex in America because money has become a driving factor so it’s not a fair comparison. Alternative medicine doesn’t even get a chance in the running when our government literally spends more to develop ONE drug/year than they spend on researching all alternative medicine as a whole. Nonetheless, US science is slowly coming around – the biological benefits of acupuncture, mediation, yoga, physical therapy and body manipulations, hypnosis and guided imagery, and tons of other methods are appearing more and more in lots of credited science journals. UCLA, Harvard Med, UCSF Medical Center and hundreds more have published loads of studies on benefits they’ve found. While most of the world is far ahead, even 40% of Americans currently report they use alternative medicine. It’s brought a lot of health and peace to millions of people’s lives. There’s so much we don’t understand about our body and our world, it’s taken time for U.S. mainstream to let it in but I’d be open-minded because you might be biting your tongue at some point in the future.

  2. aspergersmama
    9:52 PM on February 15th, 2010

    Autistic kids (real autistic kids that is) need help, but this media sponsered increase in autism? Autism skyrocketing? Higher rates? See the YOU TUBE video: autism spectrum seems out of control and “autism epidemic rooted in abuse and misuse of word ‘autistic’ to get a better understanding of what’s going on pretty shocking

  3. Carissa
    11:12 AM on February 18th, 2010

    ok, wait, what? someone is saying internet causes autism? is this a joke? yes, autism is on the rise but it’s mainly because of the new interventions and observations taking place to notice symptoms of this disorder.

  4. kelly
    11:32 PM on April 16th, 2010

    What about a 3 year old autistic child repeating every word to you that is in your mind?? Or out of a page in a newly bought book you are reading?? Oh and chemicals are bad for you! Only Nature cures the mind (the source of all illness), body and soul.

  5. Elnora Hipps
    6:25 PM on October 10th, 2012

    There isnt much we can do about autism these days. There are still no permament cure to autism but medical science still improves. ‘”‘`,

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  6. Brendan Marthaler
    8:06 PM on November 28th, 2012

    Autism is still a mystery to doctors since they cant exactly pinpoin the main cause of it. ,

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