SEATTLE -- Ever since a University of Washington study showed four years ago that watching videos doesn't make infants smarter, the creators of the Baby Einstein series have been battling the school in court and in the media.
Baby Einstein co-founder William Clark announced Thursday what he considers a victory in this battle. The university has agreed to pay him $175,000 to cover some of his legal fees and turn over the original data from the study that discredited the baby videos.
Clark said he has won his public records fight with the university and he expects new debate over the research, saying the data he has been given has problems.
The university and a researcher involved in the project stand by the study, which was published in a major medical journal, and the data. They say that if Clark wants to discredit the research, he should do his own study or reanalyze the data.
"We stand behind the integrity of the researchers and their studies," university spokesman Bob Roseth said Thursday. "This study was vetted according to the best tradition of science in the United States."
The research study was published in the August 2007 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics. It explored the effect of watching educational videos on very young children and found that products like Baby Einstein might slow – not enhance – language acquisition. The study found for every hour a child, who is 8- to 16-months-old watched educational videos, they could recognize six to eight fewer words compared to kids who didn't watch the videos.
Disney – which purchased Baby Einstein from Clark and his wife, Julie Aigner-Clark, in 2001 – eventually offered a full refund to everyone who bought the videos between 2004 and 2009 and changed their marketing to remove statements saying the videos were educational.
Starting in 2007, the university denied several public records requests from Clark, citing its inability to share the data without violating the privacy rights of its human research study participants. Then last year, Clark sued in King County Superior Court to get the data, and after several legal rounds, the university turned it over to Clark.
Clark now has the data in two forms: paper data was supplied two years ago with personal information about the research subjects crossed out by hand. The electronic data delivered recently was redacted electronically.
"I find myself in a real awkward situation," Clark said by telephone from Denver. He said he has found discrepancies between the paper and electronic versions that the university has not explained to his satisfaction.
Clark said the problems are in important sections of the data that show how many words children recognized after watching educational videos and he estimates as many as 5,000 fields may be affected.
Roseth, of the University of Washington, said both the printed copy and the electronic files come from the exact same data set. The information was converted into PDFs before printing and something happened during that translation that changed some data fields, he said.
"Those records were secure. None of the data files were altered. The underlying file was not changed," Roseth said.
Clark said he questions that explanation because of where the problems are located and because other researchers have told him they have never had a similar problem.
"It's an IBM program. It has to be bulletproof," he said of the computer program used by researchers to process the data.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a doctor at Seattle Children's hospital who co-authored the study, said the Clarks have been out to discredit that research since the day it was first published.
"It's frustrating to me. There's a single copy of the data and the university has always had it," Christakis said Thursday.
He said other peer-reviewed studies, including one published in the May 2010 edition of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine have found similar results.
"The person with the agenda is not me. It's them. I didn't pick a fight with the Clarks or with Disney," Christakis said. "My agenda is to improve child health and that's what brings me to work every day."