Edit midday Saturday: I’ve just read the Guardian version and it’s been cut a bit, whole chunks missing, and bits rewritten. This is the best reason to have a blog. Anyway, if Baroness Greenfield responds – and naturally I hope she will, as there is a great deal more to say on this topic – I hope she will respond to what I actually wrote, below.
Saturday 16 May 2009
You will be familiar with the work of Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield. She is head of the Royal
Institute Institution of Great Britain, where she has charged herself with promoting the public’s understanding of science, of what it means for there to be evidence for a given proposition. This is important work.
You will also doubtless be aware of her more prominent activity on the many terrifying risks of computers, exemplified in the Daily Mail headline “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist”, “Computers could be fuelling obesity crisis, says Baroness Susan Greenfield” in the Telegraph, “Do you have Facebook flab? Computer use could make you eat too much, warns professor” in the Mail again, “How Facebook addiction is damaging your child’s Brain”, and so on.
These stories arise from a string of lectures, public meetings, pronouncements, and articles in the popular press, generated by the Baroness over the past few years. They are never set out as a clear hypothesis, in a formal academic publication, with the accompanying evidence and a clear suggestion of what research programmes might be planned to clarify on any uncertainties. She has explained, when criticised for a lack of clarity, a lack of evidence and an excess of panic, that these are merely ideas, speculations, hypotheses.
It is for the reader to seek out the original texts of this prodigious output – assuming a surfeit of time – and come to their own conclusions on whether her caveats were expressed with sufficient clarity and force. On this, I cannot illuminate you, in one short column.
It is also for you to judge whether Professor Greenfield, with her extensive experience of working in the media, and repeated experience of being the engine behind such scare stories over several years, should be able to predict that her “speculations” and “hypotheses” will inevitably result in scare stories in the press.
However it might be useful to walk through the most recent example, from this week, where we learn about her concerns on obesity, through the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. “Computer games, the internet and social networking sites may be fuelling the obesity crisis” is the theory. By encouraging kids to sit around? No: “by changing the workings of the brain, an eminent scientist has warned.”
There is much talk of the “prefrontal cortex”. Regular readers will remember fascinating research from Yale in 2008 showing that the use of neurosciencey language can make an uninformative and circular argument appear more plausible to a lay audience. But do Greenfield’s ideas have substance beyond this? Let’s see.
“While a child who falls out of a tree will quickly learn not to repeat the mistake, someone who goes wrong on a computer game will just keep playing.” It seems to me that experimenting in a safe environment is one of the key, enduring, almost definitive features of all “play”. Perhaps I am wrong and this is entirely new. Moving on. “Computer use could be cutting attention spans, stifling imagination and hampering empathy, she said.” “As a result, the parts of the brain involved in these traits will not develop properly.”
Neuroscienciness aside, again, with the best will in the world, this seems slightly foolish, simply because there are so many different things you could do with a computer, some of which would probably enhance attention span, imagination, and empathy.
In fact, those with long memories may be doubly confused here, because Professor Greenfield herself personally endorses a computer games product called MindFit, which is supposed to keep you clever. Greenfield launched this product – using Baronial privilege – two years ago in the House of Lords, to much media fanfare in the Times, Telegraph, BBC and more.
MindFit’s games were supposed to exercise “short-term memory, spatial memory, visual perception, scanning, divided attention, shifting, awareness, hand-eye coordination, time estimation, planning and inhibition.” So do lots of computer games and activities. When Which magazine investigated the company’s claims they were sent three studies. Two had basic design flaws, and one they reported as being well designed, with some positive results, but this had not been formally published.
“There is good evidence that some activities help maintain mental processes,” said Which, and I agree. “But many of these are cheap or even free, such as getting regular physical exercise, eating healthily and having an active social life.” Baroness Greenfield’s personally endorsed product, MindFit, costs £88. That’s quite a lot of money.
Let us be clear. It is possible that much of the Baroness’s output on this topic is speculative flim flam, dressed up in an unnecessarily expensive and sciencey “gloss”. And perhaps it is dangerous and unhelpful for one of our most prominent science communicators, whose stated aim is to improve the public’s understanding of science, to appear repeatedly in the media making wild headline-grabbing claims, with minimal evidence, all the while telling us repeatedly that they are a scientist. Perhaps by doing this, the head of the Royal Institute unhelpfully misrepresents what it is that scientists do, and indeed the whole notion of what it means to have empirical evidence for a clearly stated claim, thus undermining the public’s understanding of science, devaluing the coin, and making our jobs harder? I don’t know. I am merely raising it as a hypothesis. We need to examine these questions in more detail. I am very, very happy to do so.