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Environment

Grist: Autism Linked to Corn Syrup

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When it comes to climate change, Grist (like many green advocacy outlets), is quick to pounce on media stories it deems substandard. A recent example is this slapdown from Grist's executive editor, titled:

How Huffington Post aided a demolition job on climate science

Well, it turns out that Grist has a wrecking ball of its own, in the form of an article headlined:

New Study links autism to high-fructose corn syrup

Yes, you read that right. The Grist writer, Tom Laskawy, gives this overview:

The study's argument is complicated but deeply disturbing. It pieces together what's known about the genetic and metabolic factors involved with autism, including the growing evidence of a link between autism and mercury and organophosphate pesticide exposure. Essentially, HFCS [high fructose corn syrup] can interfere with the body's uptake of certain dietary minerals "” namely zinc. And that, when combined with other mineral deficiencies common among Americans, can cause susceptible individuals to develop autism.

It gets better. A little further down, the author admits:

Now, this is just one paper. And a full understanding of it requires far more expertise in biology and genetics than I possess.

Next breath comes this:

But I certainly think it shifts the HFCS debate in an unexpected and troubling way.

If you really want to know how troubled the whacky debate over corn syrup is, here's the backstory. As for the current Grist post, some readers pushed back on Laskawy's obvious bias. Here's one blistering retort:

This is EXTREMELY irresponsible! First of all, even if the authors of this study made a good case for a correlation between HFCS exposure and autism (which they don't), they would still have a lot of explaining and research to do before claiming that HFCS consumption played any role in autism. The entire study was unnecessary in the first place as the previous study the authors mention linking expression of their gene of interest to OP exposure is very robust. They basically come right out and admit that they just have strong personal feelings (and no supporting data) that autism is caused by diet. In addition, their hypothesis relies on their previously developed mercury toxicity model which has already been thoroughly discredited. The whole article absolutely reeks of the foregone conclusion that diet plays a critical role in autism and the author declares that he has a competing interest in that he's worked with lawsuits related to autism. By writing an article about this terrible study and giving it such a misleading title you are revealing yourself as either a) too stupid to be trusted with the responsibility of writing about science or b) willing to knowingly mislead the public in the service of your irrational personal hatred of HFCS.

Another reader picked up on something mentioned in the study that Laskawy apparently missed or willfully ignored:

And this is something I'm sure Grist would point out if a paper was funded by Big Corn: "Funding for this research project was provided primarily by donations to the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute" which is the lead author's organization.

It's good that Grist is on the lookout for inferior climate science coverage at other publications. Perhaps it should be more alert to the shoddy and irresponsible science journalism practiced in its own house. UPDATES: Since putting up my brief post, I've become aware of other critiques on Twitter and elsewhere. For example, here is John Timmer of Ars Technica, tweeting here and here. Also, ace science writer Deborah Blum weighed in at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

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