More on the international balance of nonsense

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Mark Pagel can take comfort in the fact that his remarks about phrase-books for time-travelers were far from the dumbest stuff from a famous scientist to be featured in the mass media last week. As Ben Goldacre explained on

Professor Susan Greenfield is the head of the Royal Institution and the person behind the Daily Mail headline "Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist”, which has spread around the world (like the last time she said it, and the time before that).

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 public’s understanding of science: and yet repeatedly she appears in the media making wild headline-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.

This example also shows that transnational flows of foolishness do sometimes surge westward across the Atlantic, since Prof. Greenfield's warnings were picked up by several major U.S. media outlets, including CBS News, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, one of the NYT's blogs (Robert Mackey, "The Health Effects of Social Networking", 2/24/2009), one of the SF Chronicle's blogs (Amy Graff, "Will Facebook turn our kids into social cowards?", 2/25/2009), and prompted a common-sense debunking  by Sarah Lacy in the Washington Post ("Why Social Networks are Good for the Kids", 2/24/2009).

You can listen to Prof. Greenfield's own words in an interview with the Guardian here.

One of my favorite parts is near the start:

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We actually know now that the environment can actually influence
uh the connections between your brain cells,
so that as you have individual experiences, the brilliant thing about
being born
a human being
is that you have um individual brain cell connections.

She neglects to mention that this is also the brilliant thing about being born a dog, or an octopus, or for that matter (I think) a worm.

My second favorite part comes towards the end:

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This is the first time — the very first time —
that grown up adults — human beings —
have spent their precious money and leisure time
playing games all on their own.

It's technically true that reading novels is not a game — but isn't it a more solitary form of activity than Facebook and the like are?

And my understanding is that autism (at least the type that used to be called "early infantile autism") generally appears within the first few years of life, well before Facebook comes into the picture for most children. That's one reason that some people became convinced of a connection to the MMR vaccine, since the age at which that type of autism appears (or at least is diagnosed) is often about the same time that the vaccine is usually given, roughly between 1 and 5. In any case, the major increase in the number of reported cases of autism was in the  1990s and early 2000s, or even before that — Facebook was founded in 2004. (Some portions of Prof. Greenfield's remarks seem to refer to gaming rather than to social networking sites — the target of her warnings is not very crisply delineated — and thus there would be a better case for concerns about computer games in this connection, if only there were any reason to think that very many 2-year-olds had been playing them much over the past 20 years.)

So in addition to the lack of any concrete evidence to support Prof. Greenfield's warnings, there seems to be a good prima facie case that the suggested connection between social networking sites and increased autism is intrinsically implausible. Similar things could be said about the suggested connection to ADHD.

[Update: for some discussion of these issues based on evidence rather than on uninformed and self-indulgent speculation, see the final report of the Digital Youth Project.]


  1. bianca steele said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    As reported on the NYT blog, Greenfield's argument doesn't even make sense (granted, there are two separate statements there). She says the Internet is infantilizing because it has bright colors and flashing lights like those suitable for infants, and at the same time, the Internet is bad for infants because it accustoms them to bright colors and flashing lights. Moreover, one must suppose she thinks nobody has heard of — or, more likely, that nobody remembers — these are the same criticisms made of television over the last twenty years. As far as I'm concerned, her statements about what real interpersonal communication is like, in various circumstances, are useless: I've never seen one that was based in what I'd consider adequate consideration of real world environments as they actually exist in the real world.

    Your information about one variety of autism is probably correct, but there are a large number of "autism-spectrum diseases" that have been only recently identified. As I understand the symptoms of those forms of autism, the age of initial diagnosis would most likely be higher than five.

    The data seems to be against MMR causing autism. The cause of the increase is unknown. However, I've seen websites warning pregnant women not to use laptops or cell phones because the rise in use of these wireless devices occurred at the same time as the rise in cases of autism — very bad logic. (They often represent the precautionary principle gone mad: for example, "there's not even a crumb of evidence that computer use harms a fetus, but can't you put your toys aside for nine months anyway, for your baby's sake?") And I've seen too many semi-confessional accounts of IPG use in language that fails on every count to distinguish itself from language about, say, leaving comments on a blog, to take these warnings about this new online application seriously.

  2. Neuroskeptic said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    What about Solitaire, eh?

    Also, current orthodoxy is that, at least in most cases, the causes of autism are organic, and are either genetic are at latest pre- and peri-natal. I don't think Greenfield's theory would pass the laugh test with most autism researchers.

    Or indeed with most other people.

  3. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    In my experience (teaching high school students with learning disabilities as well as behavior and developmental disorders) some people are often quick to jump on the autism spectrum bandwagon (I'm thinking especially of Asperger's here) when a child has nothing more than little parental contact and severe awkwardness. I'm pretty sure a determined scientist could find a statistically significant link between gaming and autism spectrum disorders, but I for one wouldn't take this as cause-and-effect (at least not in terms of the former causing the latter).

  4. bianca steele said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    The idea that the Intertoobs is bad because it takes us away from our locality and brings us into an apparently worldwide network is also interesting; it suggests that everything you read on the Internet should be ignored to the extent it contradicts anything that would be said to you by a person locally. It suggests that a graduate student should ignore what professors on the other side of the country are saying, and only listen to his mentor. It suggests that a patient should not use the Internet to gather information about a medical condition, but should call up her physician's office and get the information from there. Surely this advice extends to libraries and national magazines. And surely, extended logically, it applies equally well to interest in national politics, to the reading of novels, and to experimentation with new cuisines. Quia absurdum erat.

  5. egaliede said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    The quotes by Greenfield in the Daily Mail article made me think of Gary Derby's "weak words". Almost every sentence: "My fear is…", "I often wonder whether…"

  6. bianca steele said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    Did I say IPG? I meant MPG. (When I see the letters "WOW", my first thought is something a little cruder than "World of Warcraft.")

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    It's worth mentioning that there's a fairly large clinical literature suggesting that some computer games may be beneficial for autistic children. I'm not very familiar with it, and I'm not sure how convincing it is, but there seem to be more papers on that topic than papers suggesting that computer games are in general harmful to such children.

  8. dr pepper said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

    What our grandparents did is hallowed tradition. What our parents did is wholesome and quaint. What we did is harmless fun. What they're doing today will bring the collapse of civilization.

  9. peter said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 4:55 am

    "This is the first time — the very first time – that grown up adults — human beings – have spent their precious money and leisure time playing games all on their own."

    In addition to solitaire, one could mention crossword puzzles and sudoko in modern times, and in pre-modern times, sangaku, mathematically-sophisticated geometry puzzles played by ordinary Japanese people before the Meiji period. See:

    T. Rothman and H. Fukagawa [1998]: "Japanese Temple Geometry", Scientific American, May 1998, pp. 63-69.

  10. Neuroskeptic said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 5:12 am

    I didn't even think about crosswords, but you're completely right. I suppose I don't think of them as games. Not sure why. But what is a game anyway? I hear this is considered a difficult question…

  11. Nigel Greenwood said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 7:23 am

    @ Neuroskeptic I didn't even think about crosswords, but you're completely right. I suppose I don't think of them as games. Not sure why. But what is a game anyway? I hear this is considered a difficult question…

    A possible analysis might be that a crossword is a game in which the first player plays all his/her moves simultaneously, leaving the other player to play his/her moves sequentially at leisure.

  12. eastern question said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 7:28 am

    @drpepper: Well put!

    After reading this article and the comments, I had a low opinion of Prof Greenfield, but looking at the Royal Society website, I see her occupying a position once held by Faraday and Davy. She specializes in pharmacy and brain disorders, so she should know the research well. She ought to know better than to needlessly scare the public.

    Besides, other things whose usage rose around the time when autism rates began to rise: Cable TV and ultrasound. Are these the culprits? Ha. Autism's cause and functioning in corpore is still unknown (and likely a combination of things), so any idea of external cause is purely speculative.

    [(myl 7:35 3/2/2009) Over the years, there have been many popular theories of the etiology of autism. Some of them have done a great deal of damage before being debunked: Bruno Bettelheim's "Refrigerator Mother" and the MMR vaccine theory notable among them.

    Bernard Rimland was largely responsible for debunking the Freudian interpretations and positioning autism as a neurological or neurophysiological disorder. Later, he played a key role in the thimerosol phase of the vaccine controversy. However, his 1964 book "Infantile Autism" advanced another now-forgotten (?) speculation, that autism was caused by the routine administration of oxygen to newborn babies, a practice that was apparently introduced about the same time as the rise in autism diagnoses.

    As I've discussed in several posts, Simon Baron Cohen thinks that some autism-spectrum disorders are caused by elevated levels of maternal testosterone, and his group has published some studies showing a weak correlation. Marcel Just and others think that it's lack of adequate white matter.

    As I understand it, there remains a significant controversy as to whether autism is really increasing in prevalence, or just being more widely diagnosed. In any case, the range of phenomena that are now called "autism" is enormous: at one end of the space there's a variety of profound mental retardation, while at the other end there's a certain kind of nerdiness. The theory that the people with this enormous range of characteristics belong on a medically valid "spectrum" is, as far as I know, completely unsupported by anything other than the current opinion of some psychiatrists. ]

  13. Aaron Davies said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    @bianca steele: i still don't know what you mean. what's "mpg" here? and for that matter, what does WOW bring to your mind normally?

  14. Aaron Davies said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    somewhere, there's a gay electrical engineer with asperger's who subscribes to three magazines, all called "spectrum"…

  15. Aaron Davies said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    @dr pepper: reminds me of douglas adams' line:

    Anything invented before your fifteenth birthday is the order of nature. That's how it should be. Anything invented between your 15th and 35th birthday is new and exciting, and you might get a career there. Anything invented after that day, however, is against nature and should be prohibited.

  16. Robert said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    It's interesting that the metaphor of a spectrum has not changed since the discovery of spectral lines.

  17. bianca steele said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    W.O.W.: see
    You still see the letters written in the dust on the side of a semi occasionally.

  18. bianca steele said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    Or, you could see

  19. egaliede said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    To veer away from autism for a moment, it is certain that computer and internet technology can be extremely beneficial for children with other learning and social disabilities.

    A certain ten-year-old I know, with an un-labeled learning disability that has something to do with physical coordination, uses Dragon voice-recognition software to help him with school assignments, cutting his writing time from hours down to a half-hour or so. He also uses the internet for information, cutting-and-pasting it into Word because it helps him order the information. Certainly he may never have beautiful handwriting or perfect the use of reference books – but perhaps the important thing is that he is at least learning something.

  20. Nick Lamb said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    Ben Goldacre's site has coverage of several non-linguistic issues that are coming up in this thread, including the history of this vaccine scare and others, and statistics concerning the prevalence of autism and what, if anything, they might mean. Its even sort-of indexed. So people interested in that should definitely go over there and do some reading.

  21. Brett said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    @myl I've never heard of the oxygen theory of autism before, but by 1964, it was known that the routine administration of oxygen to preemies was dangerous. (Done over an extended period, it causes oxygen poisoning in the eyes, leading to a form of blindness known as retrolental fibroplasia.) The mantra that unnecessary oxygen for newborns could be extremely dangerous may have influenced the suggestion that it might cause autism.

    [(myl 12:17 3/2/2009) Rimland's theory was not in reference to premature infants, as I recall, but rather to the practice of administering oxygen to normal, full term babies. As I've seen this done in delivery rooms (three times, in three different hospitals, over a period of 25 years), it involves putting infants in a (not entirely enclosed) kind of crib with an oxygen source next to them. The idea seems to be to enrich the ambient oxygen somewhat; but no one ever told me why it was done, and I didn't ask. ]

  22. bianca steele said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    I think if you look at, say, a CD ROM encyclopedia entry for "autism" from, about, eight or ten years ago, you'll find that the definition is in terms general enough that they easily comprise the more extended use of "autism spectrum disorder" today.

    [ (myl 12:20 3/2/2009) The argument about whether the increase in diagnoses reflects a real increase in incidence is not mainly about whether the definition has been broadened, but about the role of broadened awareness. However, I think that there's also a legitimate set of questions about whether the whole "spectrum" should be treated as a single phenomenon or not. Rimland's 1964 book, for example, argued that the "early infantile" type was different from other things that were also called autism at that time. ]

  23. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    There seems to be an occupational hazard among those charged with educating the public on scientific subjects: to slide from simplifying the complexity of the facts to "simplifying" the whole nature of the scientific endeavour, so that instead of science being a continual creative and humble encounter with a perpetually surprising reality, it becomes a straightforwardly infallible method for discovering incontrovertable facts, whose only impediment is obscurantism.

    In other words, to present scientism instead of science.

    This unfortunately meshes easily with what myl has noted before:

    "in today's public discourse, science is treated not as a search for the truth, but as source of edifying fables."

    I think this characterises this particular story quite well.

  24. GAC said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 12:15 am

    Interesting. I have a feeling this woman doesn't really understand how the Internet and social networking tools work. Some of the things that people criticize virtual interaction for lacking are things that Facebook and other social networking sites specifically provide: real names, tools for arranging face-to-face meetings, etc. Just because I interact with people online doesn't mean I don't also have face-time. I figure that the time I spend using social networking tools would instead be spent reading books or "playing games alone" (or against the computer) — not going out and meeting with people more.

  25. peter said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 3:27 am

    Another fact which many critics of online networking seem to overlook is that people have in fact had electronic friendships for 150 years – since the deployment of the telegraph. Telegraph operators, and later telephonists, made and sustained long-term friendships over the wires with geographically-distant people they never met, and often, could never hope to meet. What is different with the Web is the just the scale of this phenomenon, not its nature.

  26. Gavin said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    She is a respected scientific figure – if she says these things which are obviously garbage, who can I trust, in the world of academia or elsewhere? I know that there is good research being done, I see some of it referenced on Language Log for instance, but I do get the feeling there is a lot of crap out there, people publishing material which is alarmist or distorted, just to encourage funding and publicity. I am coming to wonder what proportion of academic work is actually of any use at all, including in the hard sciences, whereas previously I would have just been sceptical about sociology, gender studies, and similar things.

  27. peter said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

    Gavin — For the last four decades the hottest topic in physics has been string theory and its descendants (M-theory, Brane theory), a theory which concerns perhaps as many as 7 additional dimensions to the 3 of space and 1 of time which we humans experience. After 40 years, millions of taxpayers' dollars, and hundreds of thousands of hours of research by the brightest mathematical minds of our generation we still have not a a single piece of evidence in support of these ideas, nor even, according to some critics, a testable hypothesis. Since these theories concern dimensions which are inaccessible to us *in principle*, it is not clear that the theories could ever be tested. Empirically, these notions have even less basis than most religious beliefs, since believers can usually point to personal experience of the divine as a basis for their beliefs; string theorists do not even personal experience as a justification for their theories.

    You ask about usefulness. At least sociology and gender studies study THIS world, the one we all live in, and not one created as a collective delusion by some mathematically-clever physicists.

  28. Gavin said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    peter – String theory was on my mind when I wrote the above comment, but so were modern economics, climatology, and theoretical computer science. I avoided mentioning them because I didn't want to sound too much like a conspiracy theorist, and I may have been mislead by some things I've read about these areas, although I'm sure some criticisms are valid, which is why I'm having trouble sorting the good stuff from the bad.

  29. peter said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 5:00 am

    Gavin – Well, there is a fundamental aspect of educated western culture since about 1600 that connects all the disciplines you mention (along with others), although I think it would be a stretch to call this aspect a conspiracy. What connects them is a fundamental bias in favour of: universal claims over particular ones; of generalizations over anecdotes and individual cases; of the formal over the informal; of mathematics over text; of the written over the spoken; of language over image; of the permanent over the ephemeral; of systems over persons. The philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin described this bias and some of its consequences in his excellent book, "Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity" (University of Chicago Press, 1990). Cerrtainly within both economics and computer science, there are researchers actively opposed to these tendencies, and working to develop alternatives.

  30. Akma » Preach! said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 7:05 am

    […] of affairs than does Lady Greenfield’s more extensive exposition. Mark Liberman at Language Log discusses Lady Greenfield’s unfortunate nonsense-mongering, too.   On the other hand, Lady Greenfield is a baroness and a neuroscientist, so even when […]

  31. Matt said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    This isn't the first time Susan Greenfield has spoken out in the press with less than impressive results. Goldacre alludes to this article in which she argues against the legalisation of cannabis.

    Whatever one happens to think on that issue, she makes a couple of serious factual errors (the ludicrous strawman that the pro-legalisation camp think that "cannabis is 'just the same as' alcohol", and "even the most loony of liberals has not suggested tolerance for morphine or heroin abuse"), and her fact-lite conclusion on the potential harms evokes Gary Derby's "weak words" again: "It is hard for me, as a neuroscientist, to accept that [cannabis]… could not be leaving its mark, literally, on how our neurons are wired up."

    It's a shame someone in such a respected position can't hold herself to higher standards and avoid misleading the public.

    @Gavin: There is indeed a lot of crap out there, and constant scepticism can be hard to keep up, especially against respected scientists. I think you can get a feel for when some media-scientists are more trustworthy than others though. E.g. at Language Log, there's a great deal of transparency and openness: sources are linked, data and calculations are given, technical material is explained clearly, questions are answered. Ben Goldacre's blog also has that openness in abundance. When you see that kind of attitude, you don't need to rely (so much) on the experts' credentials and authority, as you can follow the argument through for yourself. No bullshit-meter is perfect, but all of that certainly helps!

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