The Season of Misconception

At a time when research dollars are dwindling, this one really leaves me scratching my head: Babies who are conceived between June and August aren't as smart as the rest of us. Or at least they don't score as well on state exams. This, according to Dr. Paul Winchester of the Indiana University School of Medicine. How does he explain this surprising finding? Simple. He hypothesized that pesticides, which are used more often during the summer months, are to blame.

That's all it took to get 157 Google News references citing Dr. Winchester's academic prowess. While it was picked up in newspapers and major news websites, his paper wasn't published in one important place: a peer-reviewed medical journal. And it's no wonder.

Most coverage did acknowledge that the findings were presented at a meeting. But they didn't explain that this means that the study was not published in a journal.

In this textbook example of "Good Stories, Bad Science," Dr. Winchester's theory is based on a hypothesis and lacks any grounding in causality.

Let's just assume for a moment that indeed, test scores are statistically significantly lower in the summer. When I think of summer, I think of more daylight and baseball -- why not try blaming these things, too, if we're just generating hypotheses? Maybe conception during daylight hours causes lower test scores. Or maybe conception during the seventh inning stretch is the culprit. Would scapegoating those things be any more arbitrary than picking pesticides?

The science is bad enough. But why is it being picked up by the media? Is there a shortage of real health news to cover? And how should the public respond to this "science" "news"? Should prospective parents wait until September to conceive, if they want children who will perform well on state exams?

Troubled that limited science resources are being squandered on such nonsense, I asked Dr. Winchester's publicist (yes, this scientist has a publicist) who funded this study. She told me that "The Department of Pediatrics of the IU School of Medicine funded his research." Really? I did not know that Indiana University is in the grant-writing business. I have to wonder whether federal or state research dollars were actually used for this absurdity -- and which bureaucrats decided to fund it. Tell me who it was, and I'll tell you when they were conceived.