The founders of the Baby Einstein video series have taken the University of Washington to court to force the release of research data they claim the University has been suspiciously keeping under wraps for years.
Two peer-reviewed studies conducted by UW professors, published in 2004 and 2007, allegedly link television viewing by young children with attention-deficit problems and delayed language development. The more recent study specifically calls out “baby DVDs” as a culprit. Viewed as landmark studies by much of the pediatric establishment, they helped cripple the Baby Einstein brand, a target of criticism from multiple sources over the last decade.
Most of the criticism levied against Baby Einstein is that it simply doesn’t work. Your baby won’t become smarter watching it, no matter how entranced she is with the gyrating shapes and colors. Fair enough. Any product that makes a claim can and should be challenged to ensure that consumers aren’t being duped. If the product doesn’t do what its makers claim it does, off to the trash bin with it and good riddance. The now-owner of Baby Einstein, Disney, has even gone so far as to offer refunds to anyone who purchased the DVDs (mainly to avoid a class action lawsuit).
What’s different about the UW research, however, is that it’s not merely calling into question the efficacy of a product. It’s claiming to link the product (and young kids’ TV viewing overall) with serious neurobehavioral consequences.
William Clark, co-founder of Baby Einstein, claimed in court that he’s been requesting the data supporting these claims for a long time.
In his complaint, Mr. Clark said the university initially told him that it was not required to release the data for the 2004 study because doing so could hurt the researchers’ competitiveness, an exemption that lasts five years. Then, the complaint said, in response to a renewed request last year, after the five-year period had expired, the university said it could not find records for the 2004 study.
On the 2007 study, the complaint said, the university sent incomplete data, redacted so as to make re-analysis impossible.
I don’t know if Clark’s claims are entirely accurate, but if they are, the credibility of the UW research program is suspect. What’s worse, reactions to the suspiciousness of its behavior will rub off on other researchers at other universities.
If the University stands behind the research, it should be more than happy to release the raw data right down to the last decimal point. Why not? Science is predicated on replicability. If the analysis was sound the first time, follow-up analysis should produce similar outcomes. But in this case we’re forced to wonder if that’s true. For social science to deserve the same level of respect given the “hard” sciences (and I strongly believe it does), social science researchers should be willing to play by the same rules.
Bottom line: the results of both studies should be viewed skeptically until the University produces the complete and unaltered data sets, period.