In an explosive display of attention deficit hyperbolicity disorder, the Mirror didn’t so much let the genie out of the bottle, as plaster it all over the ceiling. ‘Kids inherit ADHD from mum & dad’ screamed the recent headline, followed by:
‘Fizzy pop and bad parenting have been cleared of any blame for children being hyperactive and fidgety.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is an inherited brain disorder, scientists at Cardiff University found.’
Dr No does not expect the sharpest Fleet Street pencils in the Mirror box, but this is misreporting on an epic scale. On even the most cursory examination, the research, reported in the Lancet, clears neither pop nor parent from blame.
Instead, the results, which are somewhat modest (15.6% of ADHD kids have potentially relevant genetic abnormalities; but so too do 7.5% of non-ADHD kids, although the difference was statistically significant), are cautiously interpreted by the study authors, who conclude that the results ‘suggest that ADHD is not purely a social construct’. The syntax – a cunning quasi double negative – is interesting – and telling. Unravel the negatives, and what we have is ‘ADHD is at least partly a social construct’. A social construct, for those unfamiliar with the jargon, is something that is made up by society – ‘constructed’ by social norms – in contrast to that which possesses its own inherent nature, and so independent existence.
Despite this bête noire cunningly smuggled out under cover of a double negative, all eyes have been on the gene genie. Smoke has been puffed, and curtains shimmered. If there was music to be heard, it came from The Arabian Nights.
A Professor Anita Thapar, the study’s lead genie, set about casting gene spells on all who came within her compass. A mesmerised Fleet Street trotted out the gene message; some, like the Mirror, in flagrante, others in more temperate terms. Hopes were abroad for the evaporation of ADHD stigma. The redoubtable Ben Goldacre flipped the story on it head, and wondered whether believing problems to have a biological cause might actually worsen stigma.
All of which goes to show the remarkable power of the genie. Despite the fact that the study findings are at best modest, (84% of ADHD kids don’t have the genetic abnormality), and the authors coy admission that ADHD isn’t ‘purely a social construct’ – and so pop and parents are still in the frame – all eyes have been on the genes.
What, Dr No wonders, could possibly give the gene genie such tremendous power?