John Walker's Electronic House

Social Websites Harm Scientists Brains – Update

by on Feb.25, 2009, under Rants

While I realise screaming at outright lies and dangerous stupidity on the front page of the Daily Mail is much like screaming that you don’t like lava into a volcano, there are days when you’ve no choice. Today’s headline, “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist” is beyond ridiculous.

Following on from the embarrassing fiasco of publishing the completely unfounded and nonsensical claims printed last week, where they claimed that Facebook et al would give you cancer, now social networking is damaging our brains. And on what evidence is this based?

None.

This is what is most extraordinary. There’s not even a spurious study, a misunderstood academic paper, or even a suspected case. All there is are the thoughts, whimsy and suspicions of one Susan Greenfield. Greenfield obsesses on this subject, but boasts she does not have the data to demonstrate it.

Her claims “will make disturbing reading for the millions whose social lives depend on logging on to their favourite websites each day” say the Daily Mail. Well, let’s take a look at this damning evidence that merits a front page, and a deliberate attempt to frighten parents.

“But while the sites are popular – and extremely profitable – a growing number of psychologists and neuroscientists believe they may be doing more harm than good.”

None are named. None are mentioned. This is likely because a growing number are doing no such thing. As the collection of links here demonstrate, research is indicating that social networking and online communication are showing either no effect, or positive effect.

“Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, believes repeated exposure could effectively ‘rewire’ the brain.”

And how? Oh, she doesn’t find room to say.

“Computer games and fast-paced TV shows were also a factor, she said.”

Oh, so you’re saying it’s not social networking, but just stuff in general. Computer games, TV, websites… Listen carefully, here comes the science bit.

“‘We know how small babies need constant reassurance that they exist,’ she told the Mail yesterday. ‘My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.’”

Right. So the neuroscientist is saying that social networking (and videogames, and TV, and probably other horrid modern things) are causing the brain to regress back to infancy? That’s really quite the claim. Please note, it’s “my fear”. Her suspicion. Her worry.

“Her comments echoed those she made during a House of Lords debate earlier this month. Then she argued that exposure to computer games, instant messaging, chat rooms and social networking sites could leave a generation with poor attention spans.”

Ooh, instant messaging and chat rooms too!

“‘I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,’ she said.”

She wonders. Not only does she fear, but she wonders.

“Lady Greenfield told the Lords a teacher of 30 years had told her she had noticed a sharp decline in the ability of her pupils to understand others.”

A person getting older thought young people aren’t as good as listening as they used to be. Well then, I’m glad we have a neuroscientist to report this to us.

“‘It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations,’ she said.”

It’s hard to see! She fears, she wonders, and she finds it hard to see. This neuroscientist is a bubbling cauldron of scientific enquiry.

But then it shifts from peculiar speculation and unscientific hunches to something quite disgusting.

She pointed out that autistic people, who usually find it hard to communicate, were particularly comfortable using computers.

“‘Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,’ she added.”

The foul egotist. The head of the Royal Institute, member of the Lords, and scientific advisor has decided to imply, albeit astoundingly poorly, that Facebook causes autism. Good one. That’ll really scare people into taking notice of you. That will terrify parents. Autism – such a clever, and deliberate choice.

This post hoc ergo propter hoc suggestion that because autistic people engage well with computers, that computers could be causing autism, is beyond understanding. It’s despicable. It’s not something that should ever emerge from the mouth of someone who boasts that she represents “Science”, whatever on Earth that means. Nor should someone who is a member of the House of Lords, and the director of the Royal Institute, be abusing such positions to promote herself.

I’ve held off on posting this all day, because I was concerned that from my position as amateur sceptic, I’d be missing a larger picture. I wanted to know if Greenfield was good people or not – whether this was the Mail misrepresenting her in order to get their gruesome headline. My suspicions from reading about her were that she was not good people at all, but rather she has a pet theory, a complete lack of evidence, and a determination to attempt to promulgate her position wherever possible, evidence and reason be damned.

Ben Goldacre appeared on Newsnight tonight to confront her, and the incredulous Dr Aric Sigman, and has since written the following on his blog:

“It is my view that Professor Greenfield has been abusing her position as a professor, and head of the Royal Institution, for many years now, using these roles to give weight to her speculations and prejudices in a way that is entirely inappropriate.

We are all free to have fanciful ideas. Professor Greenfield’s stated aim, however, is to improve the publics understanding of science: and yet repeatedly she appears in the media making wild headling-grabbing claims, without evidence, all the while telling us repeatedly that she is a scientist. By doing this, the head of the RI grossly misrepresents what it is that scientists do, and indeed the whole notion of what it means to have empirical evidence for a claim. It makes me quite sad, when the public’s understanding of science is in such a terrible state, that this is one of our most prominent and well funded champions.”

I should learn to trust my instincts.

Update: Greenfield said the following on Newsnight, after giving her peculiar “rewiring” speech:

“There is no evidence, because it would be very hard to prove that people are different because of work with the screen. Although that’s a wonderful project that I wish the government would put some money into exploring. On the other hand, one can look at the type of features of screen life, and see that perhaps that is now mirrored in the behaviour of the upcoming generation, if you like. One might argue shorter attention span, an emphasis on process, on the experience of the moment, rather than content, of an identity that needs to be bolstered up with [grins] Twitter, and perhaps an increased recklessness.”

Let me just repeat that first part again:

“There is no evidence, because it would be very hard to prove that people are different because of work with the screen.”

She is a disgrace. That she is supposed to represent science to the public is a disgrace. Statements like the above, with an outright lie about “proof”, followed by dogged repetition of her unproven fantasy, are not acceptable.

In 2000, in a biography written by Brunel University when she was presented with an honorary degree, it was stated:

“Professor Greenfield would like to see Science as a subject and an institution become more accessible and attractive to the general population. She wants to see a society where we are all scientifically literate. To this end, she works hard at opening up a window into Science via the media.”

She absolutely does not want this. She wants to perpetuate scientific ignorance, attempting to frighten the public into believing her imagined concerns and deception, using threats against their children’s safety. She should resign from her position as the director of the Royal Institute immediately.


19 Comments for this entry

  • The_B

    Bloody hell, is about the only exclamation I can bring myself to make without somehow managing to distil speechlessness into a text comment.

    And heck, the line you quoted:

    ““‘It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations,’ she said.”

    just baffles me – I mean, it screams to me as if she’s trying to imply that all our minds must fix to one common specification, and moreover left in the same respect of ‘Previous generations’ thinking the world was flat. – I mean, seriously – how else are you supposed to interpret that?

  • KBKarma

    Hey John, here’s something else. Apparently, the Royal Society agreed with Ben in 2004.

    So, even then, they called her a “popularizer”. There’s more here, if you have a paid account. I don’t.

  • Thomas Lawrence

    How can one “echo” one’s own comments? That’s just… repeating yourself, isn’t it?

  • The Poisoned Sponge

    Is there no criteria for her job? Doesn’t she actually have to do some sort of science to keep it? And shouldn’t making spurious claims on no evidence at all nullify some line of her contract? She shouldn’t resign, she should be fired.

  • roBurky

    That part about autism caused by computers fills me with rage.

  • mister_arnold

    Hi Bovverer,

    this type of thinking seems to be growing. It would be good to see what actual research (neurological, sociological, psychological) is being done in this area, other than theorising and worrying.

    There was a programme on iplayer recently, a bbc4 documentary I think, about how reading reshapes our brain. Apparently, we’re not born with the innate brain patterns/links to read but we develop them over time. Reading activates various brain areas, including empathy. This was illustrated, school TV style, by visiting a lab and looking at monitors flashing.

    The programme also suggested that our reading patterns are changing and this changes our brains. A sort of ‘use it or lose it’ warning. However, this didn’t seem to be so tested – but I’m an unreliable witness as I started making lunch around then.

    I finished watching thinking a rather heretical thought; if reading isn’t ‘hard-wired’ or ‘natural’, why should we be so scared of losing it? I can answer that, and no doubt the programme makers can, but they didn’t. It was just assumed that reading (from books in particular) is a Good Thing. Of course, before many people could read, reading was a Dangerous Thing that may fry your brains or cause emotional overload. Maybe social networking/online activity may change our brains… but to label these hypothesised changes as bad – that’s very bad science.

    Apologies I can’t remember the name of the programme or anyone involved though.

  • NM

    Now, now, have pity on her. She’s a lady and her mind has been turned to mush by thinking about flowers and dollies and cake batter and knitting.

  • maybenexttime

    “‘I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,’ she said.”

    I … what? When you put it like that, I can’t wait for ‘real conversation’ to give way to ‘screen dialogues’. The less time I spend elbow deep in metaphorical blood the better.

    I thought she was just being a ‘technology = bad’ person drafted in by the Mail, but that comment about autism is just disgusting.

  • Iain "DDude" Dawson

    I have to say, I always find myself funnier when IMing, as I have more time think over each response. This observation must IMMEDIATELY be added to science!

    Oh, and kudos on using latin.

  • J-Man

    Mr. Walker, you officially deserve a box of cookies. This is yet another sensationalist, unproven and frankly ridiculous and offensive articles that the Daily Mail happily distribute to the fools that read it.

    You’ve done a brilliant job of analysing (read: ripping apart) these stupid claims.

  • peterd102

    That was incredibly detailed and accurate peice, well done. Im sick of a barrage of idiocy that its hard to become enraged about ti anymore, theres just so much of it prevelant and, particulary in this case, drowning in hypocracy that i almost give up hope. Almost.

  • NM

    J-Man, in this case, it is not the Daily Mail’s fault. Don’t be so knee-jerk, because that misses the true issue at hand: the idiocy of a person in charge of one of the country’s premier scientific institutions who is acting utterly unscientifically.

  • DawnOfCreation

    This is sickening. This is more than sickening. This is insane. She is actually insane. That a woman, claiming to be a neuroscientist, can make such ridiculous claims, and actually get them published. Is there nothing that she has to do to get her job? Did they not ask her to prove her claims that she was a neuroscientist? It just shows how the country really is going to shit.
    Computers, IMing, Video games etc.
    All these things, if anything, have improved my reactions, spelling and grammar. And the claim about autism actually makes me want to hit her in the face.
    Thanks, I’m done =]

  • DawnOfCreation

    Oh and, nice one, Mr. Walker, for actually bringing this to my attention, as, normally, I would never pick up a copy of the Daily Mail.

  • Bobsy

    John, serious question: ever considered going into politics?

  • John Walker

    No, because I’d be utterly awful at it.

  • J-Man

    @NM:

    I agree with you, but surely it is undeniable the Daily Mail is just a sensationalist group of hacks.

  • Jazmeister

    This is fast becoming my political blog of choice. I also wish the First Emperor of Man would hurry the fuck up.

  • Juliet

    Isn’t ‘living in the moment’ meant to be the secret to feeling good all the time?

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