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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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May 2014

PETA says milk is linked to autism

PETA is an organisation which campaigns against drinking milk because this is part of the human use of animals for food and clothing that they object to. That’s fine and up to them. What’s not fine is this: “Got autism? Studies have found a link between cow’s milk and autismplastered on billboards and promoted on their website.

It is an extraordinary claim. I can see why they like it - worried, even desperate parents are an attentive audience. Stuck with little time this morning, I read through Steven Novella’s excellent review of the claim (which originates in the US) which found there is no evidence to support it. I tweeted at PETA to take it down. No response on twitter but the retweets got very lively. I emailed them at 3 o’clock, and got back a very long automatic response (they must be getting a lot of messages about this now).

I’ve just been able to get back to it. PETA's email says parents have told them they saw improvements in their child’s behaviour when they took milk out of their diet, and it mentions two studies into dairy products and autism – one of which actually concluded that the evidence is inconclusive and the other, from 20 years ago, concluded only that researchers could “hypothesise a relationship between food allergy and infantile autism."  PETA’s email to me also said that “Research has linked dairy consumption to higher rates of ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and diabetes. Dairy products have also been linked to juvenile diabetes, allergies, constipation, and obesity” There’s no evidence given in support of any of these further claims. I’m going to have to phone them and ask them to meet me on Monday.

In the meantime, if you have a moment, whether you’re a vegan who doesn’t need misinformation to support that or are affected by autism and able to tell PETA you’re sick of people using it as a peg to hang all causes on, or if you just want to challenge people putting rubbish into circulation, please contact them yourselves at [email protected]. By all means copy me your thoughts ([email protected]) and I’ll update this in coming days.

UPDATE Monday 2nd June 2014 16:10: Ben Williamson from PETA’s UK office called me just now. He couldn't answer my questions, so I need to hear from him again when he can. He hadn’t looked at the studies PETA supplied as evidence to support its claim so when I set out the limitations of those (see above) and said “so, no evidence, then” he had no answer. He did however tell me that they have heard stories from parents about how helpful they found it to eliminate dairy foods from children’s diets, and that PETA’s role is to provide parents with valuable information like that. This was his answer too when I told him that parents and families have told us it’s not OK to use extraordinary and unsupported claims about autism to get attention for PETA’s agenda. He didn't acknowledge at all that claims like PETA's add to the pressure to wade through conflicting claims about the condition people affected by autism already feel.

He was clear that the campaign started in the US and is not a PETA UK campaign but he didn’t know if PETA UK has a position on it – he’s going to find out if PETA UK supports the claims by the end of today. I said they should ask PETA US to retract the claims. I'll let you know his response.

UPDATE Monday 2nd June 17:20: Ben Williamson has emailed me following our phone call. He hasn't directly answered my questions but says that PETA UK believes that PETA US’s website “provides parents with potentially valuable information” and that “research has shown that a dairy-free diet may help kids who have autism.” I told him on the phone that the studies they cite don't show this.

His email also says that consumption of milk contributes to “asthma, constipation, recurrent ear infections, iron deficiency, anaemia and even some cancers” and that “cows' milk might be the perfect food for baby cows, but it might also be making kids sick.” I’ve asked him to show me some evidence for these claims – as far as I know dairy products have actually been shown to protect against some cancers.

Beautiful Science

At Sense About Science we’ve been trying to be more visual. For the launch of Making Sense of Chemical Stories we used posters to share useful insights from the guide.

The dose makes the poison

Sometimes it’s easier to respond to misconceptions with a graphic. Statistics is a good example. 

When faced with headlines like “Daily fry-up boosts cancer risk by 20 per cent”, even after asking what your risk was to begin with, it can be hard to imagine without an image. Visualisation can really help us to get to grips with risk. Statistician David Spieglehalter is a fan of using graphics to demonstrate risk, shown here in his blog Understanding Uncertainty. This image compares the risk of death from likely outcomes for 1000 women.

Understanding Uncertainty - comparing risk

And in Making Sense of Drug Safety Science we worked with designers to create images to better explain the relationship between dose and toxicity.

Drug Safety Science - Dose and toxicity


Last Monday, five of us from the Sense About Science office went to the British Library for a tour of Beautiful Science – an exhibition of data visualisation from early explorers’ navigation diaries to images by David McCandless (of Information is Beautiful).


Graphs, animations, maps and tables told us about:

  • the 1854 cholera epidemic in London;
  • the relationship of the human genome to that of the platypus;
  • and how we feel about the weather.



The exhibition demonstrated the power of the image. As well as a way to more easily understand data, the image can be a political tool, as with Nightingale’s Rose. The graphic representation of deaths from the Crimean War didn’t just help parliamentarians to understand the statistics, but also campaigned for action. By manipulating visual representations of data, you can manipulate what people take away from it.

Nightingale Rose








Causes of mortality in Crimean War - Nightingale’s Rose. Source:  Understanding Uncertainty

But images can be interpreted in the wrong way. Random distribution of incidence of cancer, for example, may show a cluster in your county. But it could be the result of chance, and cannot explain the cause. We helped user-test a new health atlas to minimise misunderstanding. It involved careful decisions on things like which colours to use, and explanation of what the maps could and could not show. 

If you can help us visualise our resources, let us know by emailing [email protected]

The Beautiful Science exhibition is in its last few days so head along this weekend.

Who says your diet is chemical free?

Today we’re launching a new edition of Making Sense of Chemical Stories', to stop people being misled by chemical myths. With chemicals ever-present in the media, the guide has been revised to help people make sense of chemical stories. The guide was published in partnership with the Royal Society of Chemistry.

To help visualise, volunteer and VoYS member Mabon Elis has created this infographic. Please share it.

Chemical Stories Infographic