This is a guest post by Mariko Foecke, Ph.D. Candidate, UCSF Biomedical Sciences (BMS) Program
Watching the retrospective on “crack babies,” it becomes painfully obvious how much panic can be caused by the results of a single study. I think it’s also a remarkable example of how, when we don’t look back on history, we’re liable to repeat the same mistakes. It reminded me of how, a decade later in the late 90s, alarm bells were prematurely sounded when the Lancet published Wakefield’s article claiming the MMR vaccine caused autism. Interestingly, I think there were a lot of similarities between the initial studies and subsequent responses:
- Widely publicized by the media
- Preliminary studies with a small sample size
- The effect on minority groups
- Women who participated in Chasnoff’s study were offered free prenatal care in exchange (which they would not have had access to/been able to afford otherwise)
- Diagnosed with autism later and less often (particularly problematic since both “crack babies” and autistic children were considered to be more treatable/manageable with early intervention)
As a basic scientist, I think the retrospective also highlights how important it is to think about how we contextualize and speak about our work and how damaging it can be if it’s taken out of context.