How Aric Sigman distorts the scientific evidence to mislead you.

February 24th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in aric sigman, bad science, mail, onanism, references | 153 Comments »

I was on newsnight a second ago, debating the rather indulgent claims of Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield and Dr Aric Sigman about Facebook and Twitter. It’s 40 minutes in to the show, which can be seen here as a wmv/rm file or here on iPlayer or here:

I promised references. These can be found below.

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. Sometimes it’s cannabis.

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.

Then there was Dr Aric Sigman. He is the man behind the “Facebook causes cancer” story in the Daily Mail, and many other similar stories over the years (as part of the Daily Mail’s ongoing oncological ontology project). His article can be read in full online here as a PDF. I explained that he had cherry picked the evidence in his rather fanciful essay, selectively only mentioning the evidence that supports his case, and ignoring the evidence that goes against it.

Cherry picking is a common crime in the world of pseudoscience – whether it is big pharma or everyday cranks – and to me it is a serious crime against science, because by selectively quoting evidence, you can make almost anything seem either dangerous, or beneficial.

Dr Sigman’s case is that social networking leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to biological harm (he doesn’t mention cancer specifically, incidentally). I didn’t get near the second half of his argument, though: because he was so spectacularly misleading on the first that it became irrelevant.

I claim no expertise on the question of whether social networking and internet use is linked to loneliness. I merely have a basic ability to use searchable databases of academic evidence, like anybody else. If you go to PubMed and type in:

loneliness [ti] AND internet

you will get 12 results.

Many of them do not support Dr Sigman’s theory. These are the ones he completely ignores.

For example:

1. Caplan SE published a paper in 2007 entitled: “Relations among loneliness, social anxiety, and problematic Internet use.” Dr Sigman did not quote this paper in his article. Why not? “The results support the hypothesis that the relationship between loneliness and preference for online social interaction is spurious.”

2. Sum et al published a paper in 2008 with the title: “Internet use and loneliness in older adults“. Dr Sigman chose not to quote this paper. Why not? I don’t know, although it does contain the line “greater use of the Internet as a communication tool was associated with a lower level of social loneliness.”

3. Subrahmanyam et al published a paper in 2007 called “Adolescents on the net: Internet use and well-being.” It features the line “loneliness was not related to the total time spent online, nor to the time spent on e-mail”. Dr Sigman ignored it.

And so on.

I am not claiming to give you a formal, balanced, systematic review in these examples, I am simply demonstrating to you the way that Dr Sigman has ignored inconvenient evidence, in order to build his case.

Was this an oversight? Were these papers hard to find? I think not. And Vaughan at the ever-brilliant Mindhacks.com (surely the best popular psychology content anywhere, not just on the net) found some even more damning evidence.

He points out the Dr Sigman quoted a 1998 paper called “The Internet Paradox”. This paper did indeed find a (weak) relationship between internet use and depression, loneliness, etc. This was 1998, at the very dawn of widespread use of the web, but more importantly, the very same authors went back and looked at the very same families, and found that the effect had disappeared. That seems relevant to me, especially if you’re going to quote the 1998 results, Dr Sigman?

You can read the paper in full online as a pdf. It says “This sample generally experienced positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being.”

There is no excuse for not knowing about this finding. Type the internet paradox into Google. Go on, do it:

www.google.co.uk/search?q=the+internet+paradox

“The Internet Paradox Revisited”, the paper Dr Sigman ignored, is the second result.

Dr Sigman claimed, on and off camera, that his was an opinion piece and so it is acceptable to quote only half the evidence. This is ricockulous, this is not how the paper was presented in the media, it is not what people were expecting, and it’s not what I’d expect from any opinion piece in anything approaching a scientific journal. In fact, this way madness lies: comment is free, but facts are sacred. If you cherry pick your evidence, you can make a very good case that all swans are black. This would not represent a useful argument.

Excitingly, Dr Sigman then went on to claim that his article “Well connected? The biological implications of social networking” was not in fact about social networking.

It is quite hard to have a meaningful discussion with someone like this.

Update:

A friend also just sent me this excellent review from 2009 on facebook and cancer. We might forgive Sigman for not referencing it but it’s a good summary for those who are interested.

www.cam-ascor.nl/images/documents/2009_Valkenburg__Peter_Current_Directions.pdf


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153 Responses



  1. sockatume said,

    February 24, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Somebody needs to buy Ben a Blackberry, or something.

  2. samarkeolog said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:03 am

    Exquisitely pained facial expressions.

  3. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:14 am

    haha cant collate refs on a blackberry! refs in two mins now

  4. saulcozens said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:16 am

    FYI pubmed can be made to respond to search terms in the URL:
    www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_SearchBar.Term=loneliness%20ti%20internet

    useful for creating blog and twitter links (but not from a mobile phone eh!)

  5. The Biologista said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:16 am

    It causes cancer and now it non-specifically “damages your kids”. I take it Facebook is MMR for the next while…

  6. The Biologista said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Saul, link=borked. 0 hits.

  7. The Biologista said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:20 am

    This should work:

    www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed&cmd=DetailsSearch&term=lonelinessti+AND+internet&log$=activity

  8. Daniel Rutter said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:38 am

    Here’s the Mind Hacks piece:
    www.mindhacks.com/blog/2009/02/facebook_causes_marb.html

  9. nih said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:09 am

    The same woman managed to get her name up in lights in this complete piece of fiction:

    www.stuff.co.nz/4859872a28.html?source=RSStopstories_20090225

    I am greatly saddened by the presence of both pseudoscience and pseudojournalism.

  10. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:10 am

    updated post, refs there now.

    what a silly pair.

  11. timoth said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:24 am

    Is it a coincidence that Sigman makes a living selling books full of this nonsense?

    Does he even work for a research institution?

  12. zeno said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:42 am

    Does no one here need their beauty sleep?

    PS Another great post, Ben.

  13. botherer said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:57 am

    Just your facial expressions while Sigman was talking were enough. Splendid wordless communication there!

  14. Jacob said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:20 am

    Good on you Ben. Just watched the Newsnight segment and you came across in a very reasonable way, whilst Dr Sigman just seemed to be ranting.

    I wrote about this story last week, and in doing so wondered what Dr Sigman stands to gain from his “research”. Do you have any insight?

  15. adambuckley said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:38 am

    As a previous student of Prof Greenfield, and having had to slog through tutorial reading lists of her papers, I can confirm that this sort of supposition without any sort of data to back it up seems to have been her stock in trade for quite a while.

  16. Scrotley said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:47 am

    Careful, Ben, you’re turning into one of those Cadbury kids.

    43.37 in, had to laugh at the jaundiced eye Paxo casts on Sigman as latter tries to recruit him as a ‘friend’.

  17. Psychedelia Smith said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:54 am

    Crumbs – is it me, or does Aric Sigman look and sound like some really pissed-off Romulan in that clip? He’s obviously had media training; the words ‘Let me finish’ are a dead gveaway. Odious from start to finish, and utter speculative claptrap to boot.

    Also, I’ve often wondered what Susan Greenfield is actually for, and indeed how in the name of Darwin she got made a baroness. As far as I can work out, she’s an absolute pop science lightweight.

    Mention children in connection with anything and you’re guaranteed a headline. Harrumph.

    Still, you acquitted yourself pretty well, Ben.

    Nice tank top, by the way :)

  18. Scrotley said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:55 am

    Mind you, there’s something paradoxical about slagging off Sigman’s work on loneliness and social networking on a Blog Comments section at, yawn, nearly 3am local time.

  19. DavidrBadScience said,

    February 25, 2009 at 3:53 am

    It’s only 7:50 pm in California. (Where we’re all Barons and Baronnesses.)
    Try www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed&cmd=DetailsSearch&term=loneliness+AND+internet&log$=activity

  20. mrmuz said,

    February 25, 2009 at 4:48 am

    Ha! Did I hear Sigman pull that old chestnut ” There’s obviously an issue here. We’re on TV debating it!” (or words to that effect).
    Last time I heard that one was from the Intelligent Design crowd.

    Also: Snarky, cynical British news! Holy cow. If the ABC down here lead with an intro like that they’d be against the wall for being ‘unbalanced’. Under the Libs they would have found every right wing pundit in Sydney shoehorned onto the board, then been broken down and sold for parts.

  21. Gypsum Fantastic said,

    February 25, 2009 at 7:01 am

    I’m pretty sure the 1998 “internet=depression” results were down to the subjects having to surf the net using a 14.4kbps modem.

    When broadband came out the subjects cheered up significantly.

  22. Dr_John_Crippen said,

    February 25, 2009 at 8:15 am

    Sigman is a twonk and should not be given the O2 of publicity. Greenfield, however, has to be taken more seriously.

    It’s all part of the modern health Puritanism, so much favoured by our target setting government. As a family doctor I am fed up with the financial inducements that are waved at me to encourage me to ask impertinent and irrelevant questions about life style.

    We can soon expect a QoF “target” encouraging us to record how many hours a week teenagers spend on Facebook.

    Well, it beats reading Enid Blyton.

    nhsblogdoc.blogspot.com/2009/02/health-police-are-out-on-patrol-again.html

    John

  23. LenaDenmark said,

    February 25, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Even if he had not been cherry picking his evidence, is someone concerned about identification? I have only glanced over these studies, but they seem not to offer much other than correlations while controlling for some observable characteristics. Even if they had all found significant positive correlations, that doesn’t mean that the internet, facebook or newspapers cause absolutely anything; It is at least equally likely that those who have trouble interacting with others and are thus more prone to loneliness, depression etc. This kind of misrepresentation is equally as damaging to the reputation of scientists as cherry picking evidence!!!!!!!!!

  24. CarlottaVance said,

    February 25, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Its one thing when a Jeni Barnett mouths off (btw, I trust LBC have gone quiet), it is however more depressing, when people who should know better, don’t. Great job on Newsnight – I thought the great give-away was the ‘we’re having a debate’!

  25. Tara said,

    February 25, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Dear Ben, Enjoyed your appearance on Newsnight very much last night. Dr Greenfield is completely batty, I heard her on the radio a while ago saying something along the lines that mobile phones were destroying society because people walked along talking to their phones rather than enjoying the scenery or engaging with each other.

  26. CarlottaVance said,

    February 25, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Oh good! Prof Colin Blakemore on R4 Today ‘It would be if its true…..’ ‘In general, bloggers and Facebook users are more contented’……a bit too polite about Greenfield….but balanced.

  27. le canard noir said,

    February 25, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Looking at Aric Sigman’s homepage, I note openning paragraph reads:

    “Dr Aric Sigman is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine”

    Impressive. A Fellowship of the RSM costs a few hundred pounds per year. You too can apply online today and sport this award in your Twitter Bio. That should help you make friends, or followers, at least.

  28. joek said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:11 am

    I’ve met Baroness Greenfield before and from my brief encounter I thought she was arrogant and quite frankly a bit batty.

    How she is the figurehead of such a historical and respected society is quite beyond me.

  29. stevesp4644 said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:17 am

    nih,

    I liked this quote from your link:

    “They [real conversations] occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses, and they require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones,” she said.

    I’m wondering if she prefers these real conversations because its much easier to get away with talking rubbish by force of personality alone.

    Thank goodness for Johannes Gutenberg and Tim Berners-Lee.

    And Pheromones?

  30. LizJ said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Has anyone suggested to this lady that if she stops the ‘lonely’ people from using social networking sites then they might become even more lonely, and therefore get more cancer?

  31. biggerpills said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:38 am

    Yes, Sigman has definitely had media training but was doing everything by the book. I think I’m going to start a media training agency offering a crash course in facial expressions, and get Ben and Paxo to guest-lecture.

    Interesting to hear Sigman talking about his visits to countries where people have become unhappy when the internet was introduced. Interesting to then see how much he likes to mention his travels to Burma, North Korea and China. I would love to see his work on the happiness of internet users in these countries but I can’t seem to find it.

  32. Wiretrip said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:45 am

    Been trying, in vain, to find ‘Dr’ Sigman’s PhD thesis and some actual real academic publications. Can anyone help?

    PS I note that after shoving him through some software we have here, that two of the top ten people associated with him are ‘Richard Madeley’ and ‘Judy Finnigan’, ‘nough said really…

  33. QuietKnoll said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Ben I was pleased to see both you and Paxman engaged together in an attempt to uncover the truth behind misleading headlines.

    I’ve watched the clip again to confirm my initial impression that at the end of the discussion you might have lost the plot a bit – which was a pity. I suspect more for reasons of being told to hurry up and move on Paxman appeared fed up at the end up with both you and Sigman with his curt “O.K. lets leave it there for now” concluding remark.

    I agree that the facial expressions were marvellous and well caught by the production team. However from the point that you had a final dig at Sigman’s “previous media exposure” (which caused Paxo to remind you curtly that “we’re not talking about other science stories” you allowed Sigman a chance to escape from the trap both you and Paxman had set for him. As chairman Paxman could do little but allow him a right to respond which he did and as a result he ended up having the last word.

    Please do not take this observation as a criticism as up to that point I believe you you managed the situation extremely well and scored many direct hits that would have registered with “lay” followers of Newsnight, (some of who – might well as a result – have been pursuaded to find out more about Bad Science).

    So for your future appearances on Newsnight (of which I hope there will be many more) I think you should try to resist the temptation to widen the debate too far from the initial focus of each item.

    Hopefully you will be invited back and by repeated exposure will be better able to influence the Newsnight audience to apply their healthy scepticism of all things political towards all things pseudo-scientific as well.

  34. Wiretrip said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:50 am

    …Also, great performance on Newsnight – LOL! He did look like he was going to slap you at one point though – though I reckon you could have him in a fight, plus I think that Paxo would have backed you up :-)

  35. gazza said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Get middle aged people like Sigman and Greefield to talk about the fads of kids today and it quickly turns into an ‘old farts’ chat such as I and my mates might indulge in down the pub. “Kids today don’t know shit….. and their music!!!”

    Except Greenfield can grace the discussion with ‘re-wiring the brain’s networks’ – while I might have said ‘frying their brains’.

    So I might have views that kids could healthly spend more time in the open air but I accept that as speculation and prejudice on my part. It’s natural I should think that since I was brought up pre-internet. While as media scientists they can claim it as ‘scientific’ speculation, I guess, and get a wider hearing which, as you say, could form the basis of public policy.

    Really they should just join my old farts chat down the pub – and they might learn a bit about football to boot….

  36. thepoisongarden said,

    February 25, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Colin Blakemore, on Today, seemed to refer to “The Internet Paradox” though, of course, he couldn’t give a full reference.

    There’s a big problem when a piece of wrong information gets published; you don’t always know it’s been amended or retracted completely.

    Writing in the Gardeners Chronicle in 1846 the gardener of the Earl of Shrewsbury at Alton Towers, Staffordshire, told how rhubarb leaves had been used there for many years as a vegetable. The next edition carried the correction that he meant ‘leaf blades’ but, as late as WWI, people were dying after being encouraged to consume rhubarb leaves as a vegetable.

    I found
    Sigman’s comment about parents should think about whether their young children should have a screen in their bedroom chillingly close to saying parents should think about whether their children should have MMR.

  37. RTomsett said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Sigh.

    His last point about social networking sites being just the new screen media, and therefore directly comparable to viewing of television, is ludicrous. Social networking enables far more interaction and even creativity than staring at the goggle box, so to compare them as one and the same is highly misleading.

    I also enjoyed when he started talking about people in countries with relatively recent access to these sites. [OPINION WARNING] Interacting with people from different cultures and different countries surely broadens your outlook on life and could be beneficial.[/OPINION WARNING] Anyone know of any research on that..?

    Finally, I suspect he could be right in suggesting that letting a 6 year old spend 6 hours on Facebook per day could be detrimental to their development/health. The fault there though isn’t with the social networking site or even with the internet or computer, it’s with the appalling parent who thinks it’s OK for their child to do that. I know some parents are awful and allow the TV to raise their children – perhaps there should be a report looking into the effects of bad parenting. The Daily Mail could report that “Shit Parenting Causes Cancer And Probably A Bit Of Aids”.

  38. wiz5 said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Paxman got very defensive when it was suggested other stories could be covered. Fear of transparent journalism?

    It’s on the iplayer now www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00hxv0w/b00hxv0m/Newsnight_24_02_2009/

    Towards the end

  39. stunt_girl said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Indeed! Us nerds are grateful of any chance to communicate with other real people that doesn’t involve looking at our shoes.

    I was using the internet back in 1995 when it was deathly unfashionable, and half a lifetime later many of those people I used to spend hours chatting to online are now my real life best friends.

    As far as I’m aware I don’t have cancer.

  40. CDavis said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Greenfield is, IIRC, a convert from the world of woo.

    I can’t help thinking she’d have been less dangerous had she not lost her faith.

  41. SmartBlonde said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Saw a lecture Professor Greenfield gave on the “Neuroscience of Creativity” last year. Quite entertaining, although I didn’t think it was particularly “scientific” – even from my arts and humanities background I thought she was making some pretty sweeping statements. I put that down to the talk being aimed at a lay audience, though – mainly artists and writers. I was with her up until she started ranting about computer games damaging creativity because they don’t have a strong narrative, you don’t get emotionally invested, etc… All that made me think was that she had clearly never played a computer game, and really shouldn’t be talking about something which she had no knowledge of. @Gazza – totally agree, it’s classic “kids today” talk.

    As a sidenote, @joek: “I thought she was arrogant and quite frankly a bit batty” – seems like an odd comment to make. Am I the only one who expects scientists to be a bit arrogant and slightly batty? Goes with the territory, I’d have thought.

  42. memotypic said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:28 am

    I think that those commenting in response to others’ thoughts at 3am are actually super-social, no?

    Loved the ‘Comment of Distinction’ about levels of cheerfulness going up with the broadband rollout. That could just be the most insightful post thus far.

    Seriously though, can we petition the Society to get rid? It’s ego(t)istic bubble dwellers like her that are doing vast damage to science’s ability to communicate often blurry and complex (because the world is more or less completely grey) issues to the public. Yes the media like a dramatic and simple story. Alcoholics like a drink too I hear. Heroin is a bit moreish too as Dr Hill once mentioend. Meeting that want is not good.

    It is a complete embarrasment to have such nonsense spewed out in the name of science through this rank abuse of privilege. I want her excommunicated / disbarred / defrocked / struck off…

  43. memotypic said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Oops meant RI not RSoc…

    Brain addled. Blood too thick or something. Btw when _will_ Horizon be a science programme again? All we have now is what used to be QED…

  44. Sam C said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:53 am

    I’ve also seen Greenfield speak, on the topic of ‘Toleration in the Future': a muddled collection of warmed-over futurological cliches, plus occasional remarks about how people who disagreed with her were obviously sexists and/or ivory-tower philosophers who didn’t understand ‘science’. Sigh.

  45. flup said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Great stuff on Newsnight, and a huge thank you from me for adding the wonderful word ‘ricockulous’ to my lexicon :)

  46. Ali_mac said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Now I’ve finally negotiated the login system (confuddled by already being a WordPress user), I forget what I was going to say. Oh yes.

    I notice that many people in the media like to use the ‘children as young as…’ argument to dramatise their story, as in ‘Children as young as five are being given sex education.’

    Five and six year olds, those little kids with the developing malleable brains, are not on Facebook. Trust me. Any five year olds that are on Facebook would probably find that the brain-rotting properties of Facebook were more than balanced out by the superior neural connections that granted them their truly astounding reading ages.

  47. amcunningham said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Excellent debunking of Sigman’s ‘opinion piece’. I read it and actually agree with him that it was not about ‘social networking’ in teh way that we are commonly using it now- eg Facebook, Twitter etc. It makes no mention at all of this type of computer use. In fact from the title and the content of the paper, Sigman is suggesting that social networking is good for you. But he is talking about face to face social networks, not online. There has been quite a lot of talk about the impact of social support, social capital and social networks.
    This isn’t the first time that online social networks in science have been confused with face to face ones: medicaleducator.co.uk/social-network-research-and-no-mention-of-facebook-twitter-et-al.html

    Sigman suggests that time spent online means less time for face to face interaction which is thought to be linked to better health. What is not addressed in this paper is whether or not the interaction produced by online networks may also contribute to good health. That research has yet to be done.

    It isn’t clear at all why the IOB, and Sigman, chose to release his work in a way that suggested it concerned online networks when it didn’t. Their only motivation could have been to establish much more publicity for a mediocre piece of work. Who knew about the biologist before last week? Cardiff University didn’t subscribe to it so I couldn’t read the paper in the morning. By the afternoon so many were confused that the IOB had to release it on its website.

    Poor science and poor journalism as you say.

  48. Suw said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Bloody good job, Ben. Well done! I am not sure I would have managed to be so restrained!

  49. Michael Grayer said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Don’t worry, Baroness Greenfield. If facebook really is re-wiring our brains, we can all do some [url=http://www.oxfordbraingym.com/aboutbg.htm]hook-ups[/ur] to put the wiring back the way it was.

  50. moog said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    I had to go and have a calming stroll to lower my blood pressure after blogging about Sigman’s article. The Internet is clearly bad for my health.

  51. Oakley said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    The surely soon to be famed Goldacre facial expressions told the story wonderfully.

    Who appoints the head of the RI? Can we complain about Susan Greenfields repeated inane but potentially harmful ramblings?

  52. human said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    And the Greenfield punditry is spreading across the globe thank you very much…

    I caught TV screaming this morning ‘Social websites hurt the brain’ with a DOCTOR (whoa!) quoting Greenfield
    au.tv.yahoo.com/the-morning-show/video/-/watch/12198954/

    I teach ethics in a high school – this is a goldmine!

    Cheers and a big Antipodean thanks Ben.

  53. edd said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    “Greenfield is, IIRC, a convert from the world of woo.”
    You’re confusing her with Susan Blackmore.

  54. biggerpills said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Got a link moog? The newest article on my blog is on Twitter. I’m getting very fed up with all the Twitter-bashing so I’m glad I wrote it before watching Newsnight, it might have been hard to exercise restraint after that.

    I think Twitter is making people more creative: Graham Linehan (“Glinner”) has made great use of Twitter and has also just posted this:

    gawker.com/5158699/i-tweet-therefore-i-am

    This article goes off on a tangent by mentioning texting rather than television viewing. I can understand why the narcissism can put new users off, but that features in all online social networks. You just have to wade through the narcissistic users to find the interesting ones.

    The same could be of newspaper columnists and presenters of radio phone-ins.

  55. MissPrism said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    I don’t understand Sigman’s bizarre insistence that an internet friend isn’t “really” a friend. What does he think about pen pals?

    Greenfield’s bothered me since her Christmas Lectures, and lost my remaining respect when she hosted “An Evening With Carol Vorderman” at the RI.

  56. liquidcow said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Ben, ever thought about having a YouTube channel or something like that so we can easily access video clips of yourself on shows like this? Saves having to load up a 50 minute program and search through it for a few minutes of screen time…

  57. ianlacey said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    liquidcow

    You can watch Ben’s discussion (and the preceding VT) in a bite-sized chunk here: bit.ly/fb_newsnight

  58. moog said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    @biggerpills

    Here is a public version :mooglove.wordpress.com/

  59. blink said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Susan Greenfield does not deserve her position in society.

    How did ” The Biologist” allow Arik to distort the current evidence for his opinion piece?

    An opinion piece is allowed in a scientific journal, but the editors must surely demand that any “review” of the available literature/current thinking in the article was not one-sided??

    Perhaps they don’t-but I think they should!

    We all know sitting around isn’t good, that fresh air is good for us and activity is good for us.

    If you people stayed at home not on facebook for hours and hours at a time, I am sure they would experience many of the ill effects of being on facebook for hours and hours.

    The question is whether facebook existing actually promotes the staying at home and not doing anything with real friends, or whether some people would just be sat at home watching tv/moping/crying/drinking/killing themselves if facebook didn’t exist?

    I would imagine the existance of it does not cause people to stay at home more-but changes what they do when they do stay at home….but I don’t know and I wouldn’t use “being a scientist” to claim that I did know!

  60. blink said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    oh you can’t edit once you have posted.

    “If people stayed at home, but not on facebook for hours and hours….”

    Is what it is supposed to say.

  61. cloggingchris said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Loved your appearance on Newsnight – especially the facial expressions and body language. But you remained totally restrained, whilst making it clear that you thought it was a load of rubbish!

  62. FairySmall said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Ben, since this is the first time I’ve plucked up the courage to post a comment – thanks for all your hard work. Bad Science keeps me entertained and outraged (not with you) in equal measures!

    Did I not hear correctly or did Susan Greenfield say ‘there is no evidence….’. And she talks about brain development being shaped by environment. From that to ‘social networking causes damage to kids’ is a bit of a step – do you not think there’s been some radical interpreting? Or did I miss some other interview – I’ve only seen the Newsnight one?

    On a chirpier note – have you seen the article on the cancer screening: news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7910011.stm. Someone singing the same tune as you…

  63. biggerpills said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    @moog- thanks for the link: “Facebook Gives You Cancer Articles Give You High Blood Pressure”, another insightful comment.

    Funny how we were all happy with social networking until we came under attack, it’s as if the critics are determined to raise our blood pressure so they can then claim Facebook gave us heart attacks.

  64. Junkmonkey said,

    February 25, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Liquidcow, the relevant section of the program is here:

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gg8LlUME-IM

    (hope that works)

  65. chatsubo said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    as far as I know Susan Greenfield hasn’t published a piece of research for years – she’s about as credible as that strange man at Reading University who sticks microchips in his hand and then claims he is now a cyborg.

    Off topic – but the deeply cynical part of me thinks the Daily Mail’s obsession with facebook may be less to do with the public good, and more with bad mouthing an obvious rival to their website – which obviously, makes them some money.

  66. chatsubo said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    BTW – thanks for the Youtube link Junkmonkey – works fine- for some reason my server at work thinks it is based in the EU, so can’t watch any i-Player Beeb content

  67. JohnED said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    @ biggerpills 53. Graham Linehan’s article reminded me of a theory I had, though never searched to see if there were any papers on, that vandalism, predominately tagging, was a way for disenfranchised young people to express to the world that they exist. Therefore if this theory was right could twitter and other social networks be a mechanism that reduces graffiti and other forms of vandalism?

  68. le canard noir said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    The “there is no evidence” line was straight from Brass Eye. Classic.

    Cue Dr Fox…

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEolSjlcqng

  69. lasker said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    A very entertaining bit of screentime, well worth the deterioration of my brain. Old Sigman Fraud’s ideas were thoroughly sunk. But it is going to be difficult to deliver a knockout blow on a talking head capable of such complete obfuscation. Apparently in conflict situations many soldiers cannot bring themselves to discharge their weapons. Dr Goldacre we rely on you to shoot these beggars right between the eyes.
    And when your bullets run out you must bare your teeth ………and rip their throats out.

  70. rclooke said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    @le canard noir – Absolutely agree. I had to pinch myself last night to check the first minute of that clip wasn’t a teaser for Comic Relief – Paxman does Brass Eye. bit.ly/TJc3J

  71. gazza said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Despite my earlier supportive comment of Ben’s position I might have to change my mind now that the usually reliable source, The Daily Mash, has come up with this;

    www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/facebook-gives-you-short-attention-span%2c-says…–ooh-what%92s-that?-200902251602/

    I suspect Susan Greenfield could use it as one of her supporting references…..

  72. cat said,

    February 25, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    The real question, Ben, is have you trademarked your raised eyebrows yet?

  73. pseudomonas said,

    February 25, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Plugging pmid.us for PubMed links – it can do searches: pmid.us/loneliness+ti+AND+internet or give results: pmid.us/17474841

  74. amcunningham said,

    February 25, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Ben,
    When you said “I didn’t get near the second half of his argument, though: because he was so spectacularly misleading on the first that it became irrelevant”, did that mean that you didn’t read the other half of the paper.

    I think that you should have agreed that there are two meanings of social network, and the established meaning does not concern online media.

    The mechanism through which social support or social networks may lead to better health is uncertain, and disputed, so it is even harder to say whether spending time on a computer impacts negatively or positively on the relationship.

    At the same time, the term “social networking” which is in the title of Sigman’s paper, does exclusively refer to online use. But it is not the subject of the paper.

    Confusing but bad science.

  75. anonygirl said,

    February 25, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    would like to say that blogging/social networking/chat forums probably contibuted to saving my life at a time when i was suffering horribly from depression. so much for causing social anxiety or loneliness, sites like facebook actually had the opposite effect for me.

    what a load of balls this guy talked on the telly last night. if any kid was ‘stuck in their room for five hours’ i’d be worried about it. what they were doing in there would be a secondary worry (and if it was facebook i’d probably be relieved….)

  76. Eerke said,

    February 25, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    The otherwise quite sensible Dr Miriam Stoppard is now also in on the act. blogs.mirror.co.uk/dear-miriam/2009/02/children-need-more-than-facebo.html:
    “My colleague and friend, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, warns that sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo could shorten kids’ attention spans”[etcetera - to be fair no mention of cancer].

  77. HarryM said,

    February 25, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Or — less well researched but equally correct:

    www.doessocialnetworkinggiveyoucancer.com/

  78. RTomsett said,

    February 25, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    edd: regarding Susan Blackmore, her article on why she stopped researching parapsychology is excellent, highlighting how hard it is to keep a truly open mind (I wouldn’t say she is a ‘convert from the world of woo’ at all, really, given what she says on her site):

    www.susanblackmore.co.uk/Chapters/Kurtz.htm

  79. benv said,

    February 25, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I did like your range of dissappointed expressions, Ben. Although I don’t expect anyone i know to fall for this, I have still updated my facebook status to: “Please note that Facebook does not cause cancer, contrary to what the Daily Mail says.” Just in case any of my friends panic.

  80. DrScupper said,

    February 25, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Ahh poor Aric – can’t deny he isn’t a good polemicist. ;)

    I still think the basic question he argues is relevant: i.e., what effect does extended exposure of an articifcal stimulus have on development?

    If it wasn’t for the “Dr” prefix then his role in the debate wouldn’t be a problem – there are some good points in there – esp near the end where he touches on the issue of how kids TV has changed significantly in terms of basic perceptual input:
    www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a785314298~db=all

  81. PhiJ said,

    February 25, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    I don’t like the way ‘he doesn’t mention cancer specifically, incidentally’ is such a throwaway line (clause?). My first impression was that Aric thought the article in the mail was correct (mainly from the title of this post). If I had only scanned the post, or stopped when I got to the video link I’d have stayed with that opinion.

    On his website he says quite strongly that he was misrepresented by the papers (before saying he actually thinks something almost the same as what they said). I’m not sure he’d think your representation of his views is fair, and it’s better when you can say someone is spouting rubbish and give them no room for complaint than when you just do the former.

  82. trickcyclist said,

    February 25, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Hi Ben, I’m glad you got a chance to have a pop at both Aric Sigman and Susan Greenfield, who always seemed to me to be talking complete crap, but are now shown to be doing so with greater clarity.
    To be sure, I read Aric Sigman’s previous Biologist article, on why TV is killing our kids n stuff.

    TV is bad

    I wouldn’t recommend it – it’s a warm-up act for his more recent one: some survey data that we’re all watching the box more and getting fatter, some studies with some correlations between TV and bad stuff, tied together by some general wild speculation.
    One thing that caught my eye though – what is it with bad science and autism?

    “Early exposure to television is now
    implicated in another childhood condition.
    The very latest research from Cornell
    University strongly suggests that early
    childhood television viewing may be an
    important trigger for autism, the incidence
    of which appears to be increasing (Waldman
    et al, 2006).”

    The reference turns out to be a ‘study presented to the National Bureau of Economic Health Research’, which ‘promotes research done by Economists.’ Can anyone tell me the current status of the ‘TV – Autism’ theory?

  83. Diversity said,

    February 25, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    Susan Greenfield seems to have a lively and quick mind. I think I would enjoy being acquainted with her. However in her writing and speaking she seems to have invented a sort of ‘third way’ between science and pseudo-science. The following is a quote from a review in The Times last May of a book of hers:

    “This is a hypothesis in search of evidence. But it has the virtue that at least it is open to corroboration or disproof. Much of ID is so speculative that it lacks a banister to cling to; reading it is as disconcerting as hurtling downstairs unaided.”

  84. decium said,

    February 25, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Hi Ben, I admire what you do. Keep it up. There’s just so much woo around and you are indefatigable in battling it. As if woo from morons wasn’t enough, now we’re getting it from the president of the RI no less as well.

  85. David Mingay said,

    February 25, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    #32 Wiretrip said,
    “Been trying, in vain, to find ‘Dr’ Sigman’s PhD thesis and some actual real academic publications. Can anyone help?”

    A PsycINFO search comes up with five articles from the 80s on the hardly-relevant topic of hypnotism:

    Hypnotic and biofeedback procedures for self-regulation of autonomic nervous system functions. Sigman, Aric; In: Hypnosis: Current clinical, experimental and forensic practices. Heap, Michael; New York, NY, US: Croom Helm, 1988. pp. 126-138.

    Biofeedback and hypnosis: A review of recent literature. Sigman, Aric; Phillips, Keith; British Journal of Experimental & Clinical Hypnosis, Vol 3(1), Oct 1985. pp. 13-24.

    Attentional concomitants of hypnotic susceptibility. Sigman, Aric; Phillips, Keith C.; Clifford, Brian; British Journal of Experimental & Clinical Hypnosis, Vol 2(2), Jan 1985. pp. 69-75.

    Attention and compliance–Adversaries or allies? A reply. Sigman, Aric; Phillips, Keith C.; Clifford, Brian; British Journal of Experimental & Clinical Hypnosis, Vol 2(2), Jan 1985. pp. 81-83.

    Unpackaging ‘attention': A reply. Sigman, Aric; Phillips, Keith C.; Clifford, Brian; British Journal of Experimental & Clinical Hypnosis, Vol 2(2), Jan 1985. pp. 86-88.

  86. David Mingay said,

    February 25, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Here’s Susan helping to harm people’s brains by setting up a Facebook page where you can become her fan.

  87. The Biologista said,

    February 25, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    “Ben Gold… acre.”

  88. biggerpills said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Is that why he kicked Paxo at the end?

  89. stever said,

    February 25, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Greenfield has certainly been talking balls about cannabis for some years.

    www.guardian.co.uk/science/2002/aug/18/drugs.drugsandalcohol

    not only is the factual content mostly misleading and wrong, but it is riven with preposterous straw man arguments. She also strays way way out of her claimed area of expertise into social and criminal policy. all entirely unevidenced, and makes a fool of herself in doing so. I have no idea how she still holds the positions she does, it is surely rather embarrassing for the institutions involved.

  90. maize said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    For reference, view.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/search/lonelinesstitle+AND+internet is the recommended stable way to link to PubMed searches.

  91. kerledan said,

    February 26, 2009 at 5:07 am

    Chatsubo (in post 65) said: ” Off topic – but the deeply cynical part of me thinks the Daily Mail’s obsession with facebook may be less to do with the public good, and more with bad mouthing an obvious rival to their website – which obviously, makes them some money.”

    Not so cynical….I think a big shakedown of newspapers is just round the corner, where their websites will be their main presence (if not already). For a paper like the Mail, publishing any old tosh perhaps needs to have that ‘sciency’ stamp, to give the readers a sense that all is somehow well and draw them to the website (with its ads and so on). We can expect an awful lot more growth in sciency pundits.

  92. Mark said,

    February 26, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Thanks for linking to the PDF of “Dr” Sigman’s article, Ben. Very instructive, especially the pictures. Just look at all those smiley smiley brown people with no internet to make them all sad, just a stick and some dirt to play with just like in the olden days. I for one am convinced and shall be switching off the Internet now, never to return.

    Farewell sadness! Happy life of a famine victim here I come!

  93. thepoisongarden said,

    February 26, 2009 at 8:04 am

    #89 stever

    That Guardian piece by Susan Greenfield has enough study material in it for Ben to write a sequel.

    Things like writing ‘It is widely accepted’ knowing that many people will take that to mean ‘there is evidence that’.

    Or ‘The effects on the brain in real life are most probably subtle and therefore hard to monitor’ combined with ‘dramatic effects on brain function and dysfunction’.

    As for cannabis is harmful because people die in road accidents. Speechless.

    I’m trying hard to follow Ben’s line of not making these things personal so my question is ‘What is wrong with the RI?’

  94. Hovercraft Eels said,

    February 26, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I remember the first time (several years ago) when I heard a recording of a lecture by Susan Greenfield. I was optimistic that a Professor in the Pharmacology Department at Oxford University might have something interesting to say (about neurobiology I think it was), only to be overwhelmed by the non-evidence based, speculative bullshit coming out of her mouth. I can’t understand how she has managed to reach and keep such a position in a respected academic institution. Have the Pharmacology Department, Oxford Uni, and the Royal Institution been blindsided by her ‘sexy’ science (www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/article423495.ece)? At least the Royal Society hasn’t (and I must say I like it that, according to the Times a few years ago, ‘several leading scientists threatened to resign their fellowships of the Royal Society if she was elected to its ranks’ www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/article1014312.ece).

    I do have a large gripe with people in respected positions of authority talking crap. Susan Greenfield seems to me to be one of the worst culprits for a supposed expert not only talking confidently about things that she doesn’t know enough about, but also not requiring any evidence for claims of quite grand proportions (i.e. the sensationalist Daily Mail story linked in Ben’s article).

    At #93, absolutely, it would be wonderful to see how far the rubbish goes with Susan Greenfield if you wanted to get into it Ben. I agree with Stever (#89), the institutions involved with her should be embarrassed.

  95. Pro-reason said,

    February 26, 2009 at 11:51 am

    I just want to congratulate you for sneakily getting the URL of this site into the conversation. That by itself probably makes it all worthwhile. Hopefully it will bring in some enquiring Newsnight viewers!

  96. labeet said,

    February 26, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Great to see that the Baroness is being fired back at and glad to see that I was not the only one to choke on my coffee over her claims. I wrote a long and angry post on my own blog right there and then…
    labeet.dk/wordpress/?p=370

  97. T said,

    February 26, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    reading the daily mail reduces blood flow to the brain, causing cancer of intellingent thought

  98. Jurjen S. said,

    February 26, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    To hook in on an earlier comment, Facebook’s terms of service require that you be 13 or older, so Sigman’s hypothetical 5 year-old shouldn’t be able to have a Facebook account to begin with.

    For my own part, I emigrated from the Netherlands to the US six years ago, and social networking sites have been a godsend; they enable me to stay in touch with friends scattered from Colombia to Lebanon. I’d probably experience far more social isolation if I didn’t have Facebook. Mind you, I’m 38.

    I was distinctly unimpressed by Sigman’s citing of studies that purported to show “attention damage” and reduced scholastic performance among early television viewers. For starters, those early television viewers would now have to be in their fifties (possibly older in the US), and anyone younger than that should logically have been subject to the same effects. And yet, our society hasn’t collapsed; instead, it’s adapted to our “damaged” attention spans. And by what standard are these attention spans judged to be “damaged,” anyway? Do we have an objective standard of what a “proper” attention span is supposed to be, or is it the equivalent Gazza and his mates (in post #35 above), only dressed in lab coats? A friend of mine is a middle school teacher, and she’s actually quite impressed with the way her pupils’ (I refuse to refer to 13 year-olds as “students”) minds work. Yes, they have shorter attention spans, but at the same time their ability to multi-task is astounding to someone approaching 40. And perhaps it’s not so much that scholastic performance suffers because there’s something “wrong” with the kids, but because the teaching methods are no longer appropriate.

  99. mrmuz said,

    February 26, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    This might be terribly gauche, but like Everest it was just There.
    For all your simply-expressed- incredulity needs;
    members.iinet.net.au/~ragtag/bensezno.gif
    (400k-ish. playback speeds may vary)

  100. courting_funds said,

    February 26, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    At 1:16, should the Director of the RI really be courting government funding for a research project, based on supposition, on public television. Abusing one’s position? One should perhaps be a politician…

  101. FollowTheGourd said,

    February 26, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Much to my chagrin, my mother reads the Daily Heil and contracted breast cancer about 12 years ago (she recovered OK, thanks to the NHS). This means that 100% of people in my immediate family who have had cancer have also read the Daily Heil. I can see the headlines now.

  102. warhelmet said,

    February 26, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Like you say, it is so sad that this warrants an item on Newsnight when there are much more important science stories to consider.

    I must admit that I’ve pretty much given up watching Newsnight as it does seemed to have dumbed down. Or maybe I’ve wised up? ;-)

    Sigman’s approach is very conservative and plays into the hands of the likes of the Daily Fail. An opinion piece designed to be provocative and stimulate debate is one thing but anyone with media training, or at the more humdrum level whose had training in communications, should understand that not everyone posesses the necessary sophistication to grasp that. Or they blindly walk past that bit because it confirms their prejudices.

    The article’s title is wrong – it should be something like -“Well connected: The biological implications of ‘social networking’?” if it meant to “ask the question”.

    If anything, the article would have had more power written by someone who didn’t think the way he does and was playing Devil’s Advocate. Who had no other agenda that to try and poke holes in the value of social networking.

    To be frank, I think that social networking sites are rubbish and full of innane twaddle. On the other hand, I travel on public transport, I go to places where there are lots of people having their own conversations. I overhear a lot of innane twaddle. It’s how people communicate.

  103. The Biologista said,

    February 26, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Re-watching it, I’m still astounded at Sigman’s justification. What sort of opinion piece ignores half the evidence? Not a useful, balanced or informative one. Not one that should be given the credence of a TV spot and rational debate.

  104. T said,

    February 26, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    my mother also reads the daily hell…she is mad and swiss. she combates the cancer giving daily hell properties by quaffing large quantiities of flavanoid rich red wine.

    I cant seem to logout…? anybody know why.

  105. benv said,

    February 26, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    @trickcyclist #82
    shhhh! you’d better keep quiet about the supposed TV-Autism link. We all know what’ll happen if the media catch on to this…

  106. used to be jdc said,

    February 26, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Re: Comment 82

    Trickcyclist asks “what is it with bad science and autism?” in relation to Aric Sigman’s previous paper. There’s tons of autism quackery around. In fact, Baroness Greenfield – in the Daily Fail article – speculated as to whether computer use caused autism.
    According to this paper: “Studies have shown that a diagnosis of autism can be reliably made at between 2 and 3 years of age”
    Baird et al. I think it’s rather unlikely that children younger than two are using computers.

    I blogged the Daily Fail’s version of Greenfield’s ‘facebook is evil’ story here: Daily Fail. It’s a classic “person has opinion” story with the speculative opinions of Baroness Greenfield given apparent credibility by the Fail’s references to her as an eminent scientist working at Oxfird University. Big university, big name, but no big deal – it’s not based on the evidence and is just one person’s opinion.

    PS – I can’t believe only one person has commented on Ben’s tank top. It’s ace.

  107. apgaylard said,

    February 26, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Breathtaking attempt at escape by trying to say his article wasn’t talking about on-line social networks: it was.

    He clearly uses social network (Good) to talk about face-to-face interaction and social networking (Bad)to talk about electronically mediated interaction.

    Here are all the times he uses social networking (with and without quotes).

    In particular, the study noted an enormous increase in ‘social networking’
    among younger children which “has overtaken fun (online games) as the main reason to use the Internet”.

    UK social-networking
    usage is now the highest in Europe. The trend is set to increase: the BBC has recently unveiled the social networking
    site MyCBBC directed at children as young as six.

    the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine made the timely point that social networking “…encourages us to ignore the social networks that form in our non-virtual communities. …

    Presiding over a
    growing body of evidence, we should now explain the true meaning of the term ‘social
    networking’. At a time of economic recession our social capital may ultimately prove to be our most valuable asset.

    The JRSM quote actually makes his usage quite explicit. Quite a dishonest piece of weasling.

  108. trickcyclist said,

    February 26, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    @106 Used to be JDC:

    True, nice tanktop, and, if I’m not mistaken, different from the one sported on Watchdog. So now we know where the BadScience millions are going!

    Wow, what a spectacularly uninformed load of drivel from Greenfield in the daily Fail! Thanks for drawing our attention to it (and consequent blood boiling).

    Now I’m not sure which is worse – cherry-picking one extremely obscure reference to add weight to your dodgy argument, a la Sigman, or wild speculation on things you clearly know nothing about, a la Greenfield. Just a wee lesson, in case she’s reading: Autism is a developmental disorder, and abnormalities must be evident prior to the age of 3 for either ICD 10 or DSM IV diagnosis (The two World-wide diagnostic systems.) Abnormalities are often evident from age 1 -2, and are clear before age 5. The most popular diagnostic interview, the ADI, concentrates mainly on the age 4 – 5 age range. If they didn’t show problems by then, they ain’t got it. The disorder was first described, separately, by Leo Kanner in 1943, and Hans Asperger in 1944. So, a bit before the X-box came on the scene then. There’s good evidence that Autism is a strongly genetic disorder. Taking all that into consideration: TV causes Autism hypothesis? Massive fail.

  109. HarryStottle said,

    February 26, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Nice performance Ben. If you get this far down the list, you might be interested to know that I’ve “reviewed” your appearance as part of my own attack on the nonsense…

    stottle.blogspot.com/2009/02/social-networking-damages-your-brain.html

    keep up the good work…

  110. Alex D said,

    February 26, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Last year Sigmund popped up with another “report”, on how TV was apparently rotting kids’ brains. While also being paid by TV shows as a rent-a-shrink (www.locatetv.com/tv/fame-and-misfortune–excesses/433488).

    And then there’s this lovely piece of his research, commissioned by Amazon.com, showing how going out Xmas shopping can be stressful:

    www.chroniclelive.co.uk/north-east-news/news-archive/2003/12/11/festive-and-fraught-72703-13715202/

    He really is a bell-end.

  111. Dr Robert Carl Parisien MD said,

    February 27, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Dr. Robert Carl Parisien says: The idea that Facebook could possibly cause cancer is proposterous at best. Some poeople will do anything for self promotion and hype.

  112. jamesking75 said,

    February 27, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    I note with some pleasure that it has been pointed out by an autism expert at the Institute of Child Health has pointed out that autistic children can actually benefit from the use of social networking sites:

    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7907766.stm

  113. The Biologista said,

    February 27, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    I just joined Facebook for the first time yesterday and I’ll be blaming it for anything that goes wrong in next 6-8 weeks.

  114. 10channel said,

    February 28, 2009 at 12:30 am

    The bigger problem, of course, is not this specific instance of bad science, but rather, the systematic problem of how the news media is readily convinced of a given person’s credentials on expertise of a certain branch of science even if they are dubious. Surely the media ought to have more scrutiny of all of this.

  115. muscleman said,

    February 28, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Greenfield got the RI gig because the ivory tower misfits who us scientists generally are thought that the role would suit someone obviously conversant with the media. Presumably Dawkins and Steve Jones declined the position first.

  116. 5cc said,

    February 28, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Dr Sigman’s last comments about the proof of television causing problems with attenstion span and so on might be a little wide of the mark too.

    My wife is a speech and language therapist, and there is a fairly widely held anecdotally based belief in her job, which involves home visiting in deprived areas, that children with language delay an poor attention are watching too much television. A couple of years ago, they set about trying to prove this for a leaflet campaign to target parents. Trouble was, that after looking at as many studies that they could access, they could actually find no evidence that proved this, as Dr Sigman suggests. Anyt study that set out to prove definitively that television was affecting childrens’ attention had to take into account that television watching does not occur in a vacuum and is linked to diet, family size, housing situations, parental education, access to outside play areas and other socio-economic conditions.

    Even well-meaning speech and language therapists coming from a definite viewpiont that television was causing this kind of problem could only find evidence that any background noise affects childrens’ attention – including radio, heavy traffic and so on. I’m sure that they would be very interested in the proof Dr Sigman trumpets here, as they couldn’t find it.

  117. Robert Carnegie said,

    February 28, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Is it too late to stop people using “social network” to mean what Wikipedia calls “social network services”? “A social network is a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as values, visions, ideas, financial exchange, friendship, sexual relationships, kinship, dislike, conflict or trade.” In other words, a set of people who interact because they have interlocking interests. Likewise, if you set about using your social contacts for a personal or particularly professional purpose, you are “networking”, even if you are just talking to people at a party or over the phone. Nothing about throwing a sheep at anybody, unless it is that kind of party.

    I think [The News Quiz] took the same iinterpretation of the term as here. Iss the whole world out of step with me yet again?

  118. dg_rationalist said,

    March 1, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Fantastic appearance on Newsnight Ben (and a really cool jumper too).

    Your facial features are keeping me sane while I write my essays…

    Debashish

  119. animalbehaviourist said,

    March 1, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    RISE UP, broadband devotees, and counter the Royal Prof. as a collectivity:

    Explain to the complaining Professor why it is we love our mobile ‘phones: because it is through them that we can learn true science, from nameless, faceless, true scientists like those at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: www.kew.org or from true science followers like Green!USA: www.green-usa.org.

    True science (including technology used for educating) does good for the entire globe, and we learn about it at blazing modem speeds or BlackBerry radio connections.

    Better yet we pass it on globally in an instant, so that the whole world is enlightened.

    There’s a lot of good energy here on this blog site. Channel it and make it work for you. Perhaps start a petition on the educational benefits of technology and pass it along to the Baroness.

  120. cherylren said,

    March 2, 2009 at 12:19 am

    An elephant in the room… the huge assumption that technology CAUSES social change. Raymond Williams work on TV and Society tinyurl.com/bdx4v7 has an interesting discussion that postulates that it may equally be the case that society seeks out and nurtures those technologies that best serve its evolving needs and purposes – in which case, social changes stimulate technological change, not the other way round – so blaming social networks for changes in patterns of behaviour would be getting things arse about face and this whole discussion becomes spurious. I think Ben’s getting to the heart of the matter when he questions the validity of the whole debate – frustrating, then that Paxman squashes it at this point…

  121. animalbehaviourist said,

    March 2, 2009 at 3:27 am

    I see an elephant in the room…no doubt about that.

  122. animalbehaviourist said,

    March 2, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Time to get out the stepladdr and climb aboard the creature. The view from up here looks quite different: the “heart of the matter” appears in Ben’s very first set of comments. “It is my view that Professor Greenfield has been abusing her position as head of the Royal Institution for many years now.” Harness the beast and it becomes a vehicle for your forward progress.

  123. mikewhit said,

    March 2, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Is it too late to stop people using “social network” to mean what Wikipedia calls “social network services”?

    And is it also too late to stop the BBC et al from saying “Log on to website” when you do not need to present any identification to access the page in question ?

  124. darwinista said,

    March 3, 2009 at 12:10 am

    Almost enuff said really. She goes on and on and on and with unfailing regularity and has that uncanny knack of talking, nay, spouting, way beyond what data she ever had. She’s been doing it ever since she was a PhD student and never ceases to disappoint. Oxford does have a bit of a habit of indulging this kind of crap and I suppose that the RI is a quasi Oxford college in all but name. But really, Professor of P.U.S? It is an outrageous farce and the public really do deserve better. The BBC should certainly stop indulging her fantasies but then they recently tried to install Alan Titmarsh as a David Attenborough substitute to talk about the Nature of Britain. There’s no hope really.

    However, having got that off my chest I have to let you all into a couple of wee secrets. Too much television or computing is almost certainly bad for us in several ways and just about everything we do in some degree leads to some rewiring of the brain and the more we do a particular activity the “harder” the rewiring becomes. It’s called learning and applies equally to intellectual or physical activity.

  125. A. Noyd said,

    March 3, 2009 at 8:33 am

    I can’t believe Sigman actually said “a contact on a screen is not your friend unless you’ve actually met them.” Certainly, with that attitude, he’s not likely to make any friends over the internet! What an ass. Someone ought to clue him in to the fact that the sort of face-to-face socialization he puts a premium on is just as much a privilege of recent technology as screen-based socialization. Not long ago at all, people stayed in one community most of their lives, had fewer neighbors, couldn’t understand the speech of people two towns over, etc. What era’s technology, then, should we use as the basis for how we determine whether a friend is “real” or not?

  126. ChrisS said,

    March 3, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Watching Prof. Greenfield’s interview at the start of this piece one is reminded of a quote by another famous ‘Dr':

    “There’s no real evidence for it but it is scientific fact”
    Dr. Fox on Brasseye…

  127. Andy said,

    March 4, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_SearchBar.Term=loneliness%20ti%20internet

    I didnt see if anyone actually pasted the correct URL for PubMed search, the very 1st poster had it right, but simply omitted the [ti] brackes to indicate ‘search this term in the title only’

  128. Andy said,

    March 4, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    OMG I missed them out too… corrected version below..

    www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_SearchBar.Term=loneliness%20ti%20internet

  129. Andy said,

    March 4, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Hmmm the WordPress comments system deletes the square brackets in my links.. very annoying… This problem also probbaly happened to the 1st poster too…

  130. mikewhit said,

    March 4, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    @Andy – you can usually use the hex notation for odd characters, but you should have used %5B and %5D for the square brackets, not %20 which is ‘space’.

    Check on the Windows Character Map for the numbers to use, at least between ‘!’ (U+0021) and ‘~’ (U+007E).

  131. mikewhit said,

    March 4, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    My attempt:
    www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_SearchBar.Term=loneliness%5Bti%5Dinternet

  132. biggerpills said,

    March 4, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    Just came across the official word from the NHS Knowledge Service:

    www.nhs.uk/news/2009/02February/Pages/Facebookhealthstudy.aspx

    I feel sorry for the people writing these articles, those working on the “Cancer” section have got their work cut out.

  133. mikewhit said,

    March 5, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Surely we need a study linking stress caused by reading cancer-scare stories in the Daily Mail etc., to cancer ?

  134. biggerpills said,

    March 5, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    @mikewhit- come to think of it two people in my family have had cancer and both were Daily Mail readers. Looks like there are a few case studies here, could we gather enough for a bullshit study? Using the Wakefield method we’d only need twelve.

  135. NelC said,

    March 5, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    “Rewiring the brain”? Doesn’t any experience “rewire the brain”? Isn’t that how brains work?

  136. artberry said,

    March 6, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    I actually I think one could argue the smoking ban has had a more detrimental effect on social interaction. Social Networking sites are just something people use as an alternative since they made it illegal for smokers to socialize in public places. I guess in the future there will be Social Networking related illnesses LOL

  137. biggerpills said,

    March 9, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Next scare: Play Games And Die!!!
    uk.videogames.games.yahoo.com/blog/article/1970/

  138. Dr Aust said,

    March 11, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    If anyone’s still reading, Kev at the excellent Left Brain / Right Brain autism blog has a wry take on all this under the title “Facebook is the new vaccines”. There is an amusing comment from the Holfordwatch crew that will lead you to this interesting little morsel.

  139. Frederic said,

    March 13, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    As apgaylard said, one can quote lines from Aric Sigman’s paper that show he was dishonest. Ben could be more prepared in te future and plan for this sort of defence, which I have seen before. The guy just does not try to justify what he wrote, he just says he did not write it! Very gross, therefore very powerful. That’s why he’s a psychologist. He knows how to delude people. I know exactly how Ben felt, it is totally disarming, and almost impossible to counter without being prepared. It is very courageous from Ben to confront these guys on tele.

  140. Wardy the Magnificent said,

    April 2, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Aric Sigman seems to bang on repeatedly about extreme uses of social networking rather than the message that his one sided arguments project to the aspiring, concerned parent – i.e., social networking causes cancer. Any activity done in excess (eg 6 hours a night on the internet, 6 hours a night reading books) by young and impressionable minds is not encouraged. But Sigmund repeatedly talks about these extremes of social network use. How is spending 30 minutes per day on social networking more damaging than spending 30 minutes per day in isolation, deep into a novel in some fantasy world with fictional characters?

  141. anonymouse said,

    April 4, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Maybe before Baroness Greenfield starts sounding off about social networking causing autism, she might want to have a look at the diagnostic criteria: the essential features have to be present by the age of three.
    I don’t know any two-year-olds who are able to read and write well enough to set up a Facebook page, do you?

    BTW, social networking has actually opened up the world of real-life friendships for my autistic son. For people who have difficulty communicating, asynchronous conversations are much easier to manage. Over time, you build skills, become more able to communicate in “real time”, and if all goes well you will meet people who share your interests in person if they live close enough. That’s how it’s worked for him.

  142. palashdave said,

    April 24, 2009 at 10:22 am

    She’s just done it again: www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1172690/How-Facebook-addiction-damaging-childs-brain-A-leading-neuroscientists-chilling-warning.html

  143. brandobean said,

    April 28, 2009 at 9:21 am

    I think your points are completely valid. Summed up quickly as (1) Scientists shouldn’t back up unscientific policy statements by arguing from authority as a scientist. (2) You can’t cherry pick evidence to support something that to YOU seems like common sense. OK, so all that said, I don’t think Ben did himself too many favors by: (1) Rolling his eyes every time the guy spoke. It’s condescending and it doesn’t help the case and (2) Refusing to let go of the cheery-pick evidence issue when Sigel had moved on.

    I realize that technically there is no reason to be nice to accommodating to win an argument. But on a TV show, I do want to like the presenter of the ideas, and feel he’s taking the other person to task on an idea level, not a personal one.

    Sigel backed down, saying “look, it just seems like staying in front of a screen all day should make people isolated maybe and in some cases it does.” But backing down and saying “I was just trying to start a dialog, it tantamount to saying “I’m probably full of sh*t”

    One topic I can relate to was the valid and interesting theories around “friends” online vs. “friends” in the real world. As a designer for a social networking site, we pay attention to this stuff. It’s a tough debate. Friends used to mean people you hung out with and did things together with. Now they can mean that, or people you share ideas with, chat with, have online s*x with, or just share a common love for Radiohead. Perhaps, the term “friend” and it’s associated levels of trust are changing. No idea if it’s positive of negative (as that could mean almost anything)

  144. brandobean said,

    April 28, 2009 at 9:22 am

    (sorry for the typos in there… you can’t edit after you post, whoops.)

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  146. UXKatie said,

    January 29, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    If I require the research essay, I will ask writing service to support me. But you could write the perfect release just about this topic by you own efforts. You have got master’ writing technique, I can tell you, I tell you.

  147. jalulaboo said,

    October 31, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    I have only recently discovered this site, and I have to say I love you Ben Goldacre, I really do.
    Added to the obviously superior scientific basis of your argument, your non-verbal communication in this interview was sublime in contrast to the ants-in-pants fidgeting of Aric Sigman.
    Body language is beautiful to watch and doesn’t give us cancer.

  148. sssaam said,

    November 26, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Body language is a childish method my friend.

  149. kimaldis said,

    June 17, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    “A contact on the screen isn’t a friend unless you’ve actually met them”

    I’ve met every single one of the people I’m friended with on Facebook. Many of them are very old friends who I wouldn’t otherwise be in contact with. My experience is that that’s the norm. This man hasn’t done his research, he has no idea what social interaction is on a social networking site.

  150. kimaldis said,

    June 17, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    ““Rewiring the brain”? Doesn’t any experience “rewire the brain”? Isn’t that how brains work?”

    As far as I know, the brain isn’t made of wires.

  151. danman said,

    February 29, 2012 at 1:11 am

    Almost enuff said really. She goes on and on and on and with unfailing regularity and has that uncanny knack of talking, nay, spouting, way beyond what data she ever had. She’s been doing it ever since she was a PhD student and never ceases to disappoint. Oxford does have a bit of a habit of indulging this kind of crap and I suppose that the RI is a quasi Oxford college in all but name. But really, Professor of P.U.S? It is an outrageous farce and the public really do deserve better. The BBC should certainly stop indulging her fantasies but then they recently tried to install Alan Titmarsh as a David Attenborough substitute to talk about the Nature of Britain. There’s no hope really. daily car insurance

  152. kendersrule said,

    May 2, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Sigman’s article has vanished from the land of PDF!

  153. kendersrule said,

    May 2, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    twitter friends are generally people I’ve YET to meet. Not: have not met/will never meet. Big difference.

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