CNN just reported that autism is on the rise in the US. They mentioned causes like more toxins in our environment, etc.
What such reports usually fail to address are the statistics and methods behind the story. How was it decided that autism — or whatever — is “on the rise”? Inevitably, I’m left thinking:
- Of course autism is on the rise; the population as a whole is on the rise! There are more people, hence more cases of autism and of everything else.
- Medical research is constantly developing new methods of testing and diagnosis. Is it accurate to say a disease or condition is “on the increase” if the cases were there all along and just weren’t diagnosed as such until now?
- Medicine is constantly adjusting its definitions of diseases and conditions. Loosen a definition just a hair and — voila — a bunch of borderline cases that weren’t “autism” yesterday become “autism” today. Is it right to add them to the total and say autism is on the rise? Conversely, if a definition were tightened and refined, resulting in fewer cases being labeled as, say, “autism,” would one announce the disease is on the decrease?
I’ve never been very good with numbers, and especially not statistics, but I always wonder about stuff like this. Maybe I’m not understanding something that’s clear to everyone else. Odds are (statistics again!) I’m wrong and all those reporters and their sources are right.
On the other hand, maybe it’s a matter of semantics. Semantics I’ll argue all day.