Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist

May 15th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, competing interests, great popularisers of science, scare stories | 74 Comments »

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.

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
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.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

74 Responses

  1. peterd102 said,

    May 16, 2009 at 12:23 am

    Shes gone beyond a joke now, one of those people that causes you to facepalm everytime they crop up. This is pure pseudoscience. Its dressed up remarkably well as science, presented by a authority figure in a confident manner, and has spread to the media who have latched onto it uncritically (now theres a surprise). I don’t see a clear motive for much of her ‘work’ she just seems to create scare stories for no apparent reason. Obviously the MindFit has a financial motive, but this tale?

    We should all try and get Ben to replace her, if only for the nerdiness and the knob jokes.

    How many of us would accept to try and turn it around, or decline – are Greenfeilds actions so bad for science that the Institute is irredeemable?

  2. EnglishInBaltimore said,

    May 16, 2009 at 12:36 am

    erm. Regardless of whether Baroness Greenfield is right or not, the organisation she represents is the Royal INSTITUTION of Great Britain, not the Royal Institute. It’s quite easy information to come by, all you need to do is a quick google search you know…
    Conflict of interest statement: I used to work there for a bit and I have some mates there.

  3. Dr Jim said,

    May 16, 2009 at 12:43 am

    The trick is we can’t know either way until the results are in, thus to preconcert such results – to a tune that the media lap up – is wholly inadequate, and beneath a scientist with such credentials and privileged access to the public domain.

  4. The Inorganic Gardener said,

    May 16, 2009 at 12:45 am

    “here she has charged herself with promoting the public’s understanding of science”

    No Ben, that’s her job. She has not charged herself with anything. Whilst you may disagree with her (as I myself do) she’s not “charged herself” with doing anything.

    You, Dr Goldacre are getting FAR too big for your boots. You used to be entertaining and fun and reliable but nowadays you’ll take a cheap shot at anyone. I’m disappointed. You’re not so much interested in identifying “bad science” as picking up on “anything Ben can use to make himself feel big and/or better”. Get a life and realise you’ll NEVER be on par with Greenfield or her piers. You’re a silly little medic with the attitude of a silly little medic. Earn yourself a Ph.D and/or M.D and then I might start listening to you again. Whilst your qualifications are far, far below those of the people you have the audacity to criticise, I shall ignore your childish rants.


  5. ciaobellaciao said,

    May 16, 2009 at 12:59 am

    As a philosophy-of-AI postgrad some time ago (sigh, a while ago I must admit), I have to say that SG was a concern at the time, mostly offputting frankly. It was a combination of ‘How can someone talk this shit?’ and ‘Am I missing something significant? And therefore, am I inadequate for a research career?’

    I went for the inadequate option and left the pontification scene to SG and the like. Rather regretting it now, perhaps.

  6. Wireman said,

    May 16, 2009 at 1:06 am

    “Get a life and realise you’ll NEVER be on par with Greenfield or her piers.”

    Presumably the ones that don’t go all the way to the beach.

    Ben’s case is absolutely valid. As you say, Greenfield is charged with promoting the public’s understanding of science. How does that square with pushing sensationalist bollocks to a serially unreliable media?

  7. peterd102 said,

    May 16, 2009 at 1:35 am

    Please do not feed the troll. I know why you shouldn’t – I went there and back.

  8. Romeo Vitelli said,

    May 16, 2009 at 1:40 am

    Maybe I’m missing something here but doesn’t she have to answer to the Council of the Royal Institution about all these “pronouncements” of hers? Tossing around pseudoscientific statements without even trying to substantiate them hardly makes the rest of them look good.

  9. Mark P said,

    May 16, 2009 at 4:42 am

    “Get a life and realise you’ll NEVER be on par with Greenfield”

    This is silly beyond belief. To the rest of us this reads as “I can’t argue properly with you on the facts, so I’ll go ad hominen”.

    Just because someone has high qualifications does not make them beyond criticism. Moreover people who talk about subjects beyond their actual sphere of knowledge are no more reliable than anyone else.

    When pharmacologists extend their scope wildly to include human behaviour they do not get a free pass.

  10. Jessicathejourno said,

    May 16, 2009 at 5:24 am

    In view of her public role and her Baronessness, is there any way to use an FOI request to see if she profited from plugging MindFit in your House of Lords? I’m not sure if that’s ‘allowed’ or not, but it would be awfully interesting in these expense-scrutinizing days. Like, Daily-Mail interesting.

    (And I’d ask what the hell Britain is still doing with an unelected legislative house in the 21st century but that’s for some other website.)

  11. danoflondon said,

    May 16, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Greenfield does have some “interesting” bedfellows.

    Have a look at this article by Monbiot:

    Not sure if it his claims are just him lashing out at old Trotskyite enemies from the 1970s, or whether there is something more substantial to them.
    In any case, the “Institute of Ideas” sounds like just the sort of organisation Ben likes to write about.

  12. I used to be a scentist but now I just work in government said,

    May 16, 2009 at 6:51 am

    Jessica, as a start see the Register of Lords’ Interests:

    Without wanting to underestimate bloggers on this site, I’d be surprised if an FOI turned up anything else from the Lords.

    So for instance Professor Greenfield is listed as an unpaid Director of Mindweavers Ltd one of the MindFit (Clinically proven to help you think faster) companies: and see the ‘About Us’ tab.

    Having ‘interests’ is surely not a bad thing per se provided that they are declared and not the driving influence of a members activity in the House. The alternative would be to have legislators with a lesser practical experience of life (such as civil servants and academics?). Completely agree with you though that a bit of democracy would cut through all such arguments, alhtough watching the elected house in action this week has certainly not been an edifying experience!

    GREENFIELD, Baroness

    *12(e) Remunerated directorships

    RiSci GB (unpaid)
    Jewish Cultural Centre (unpaid)
    Enkephala Ltd (unpaid)
    Mindweavers Ltd (unpaid)
    RiGB (unpaid)
    Natural Justice (unpaid)
    Science for Humanity (unpaid) (5 February 2009)
    *12(f) Regular remunerated employment

    Professor of Pharmacology, Oxford University
    Director of The Royal Institution of Great Britain
    *12(g) Controlling shareholdings

    Enkephala Limited
    15(a) Membership of public bodies

    Chancellor, Heriot Watt University
    Visiting Professor to Brighton and Sussex Medical School
    Chair of Innovation, Queen’s University Belfast
    Elected to Board of Governors, Weizmann Institute of Science (5 February 2009)
    Fellow of The James Martin Institute (5 February 2009)
    Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (5 February 2009)
    Fellow of the Australian Davos Connection (5 February 2009)
    Editorial Board, Common Knowledge (5 February 2009)
    Member, European Academy of Sciences (5 February 2009)
    15(b) Trusteeships of cultural bodies

    Trustee, ‘Plants and Us’ Charity
    Trustee, Carnegie Mellon University Proposal
    Trustee, John Porter Charitable Trust
    Trustee of Alexandria Library, Egypt
    Trustee of Natural Justice (5 February 2009)
    Trustee of Science for Humanities (5 February 2009)
    Trustee of Culham Languages and Sciences
    Science Media Centre Board, Australia (5 February 2009)
    Board of Trustees, Cyprus Research Institute
    15(d) Office-holder in voluntary organisations

    Patron, Oxford Dementia Centre Oxford Brookes University
    Patron, West Berkshire Neurological Alliance
    Patron, London Jewish Cultural Centre
    Patron, Motor Neurone Disease Association
    Patron, Oxford International Bio-Medical Centre
    Patron, Mentor Foundation UK
    Patron, Federation of Women Graduates
    Patron, National Schizophrenic Foundation
    Patron, Writers in Schools Project
    Patron, Science Initiative, Fairfield High School for Girls, Manchester
    Patron, Oxford Homeless Medical Fund
    Patron, Pro Cancer Research Fund
    Patron, Nurture Group Network
    Patron, Institute of Education: London Regional Science Centre
    Patron, Catalyst Science Discovery Centre
    Patron, Project HOPE UK
    Patron, UniAid
    Patron, Alzheimer’s Research Trust
    Patron, Find the Time (Leukemia Charity)
    Ambassador of ‘Look Good… Feel Better’ Cancer Charity

  13. julianwiddows said,

    May 16, 2009 at 8:15 am

    Bizarrely, I posted this:

    around midnight last night. Baroness Greenfield’s been at it in WiredUK issue 2 p56, this time speculating that the current financial crisis might be something to do with bankers playing videogames!

  14. queenie said,

    May 16, 2009 at 8:21 am

    The RI is one of the reasons I became a scientist after having watched a lecture there aged 11. I find it sad that its reputation is being brought into disrepute by Baroness Greenfield, its also sad because a while ago i used to respect her too….

  15. sarahditum said,

    May 16, 2009 at 8:21 am

    I read the Wired column and was bloody furious – a litany of correlation between reduced size of a part of the brain and risk management, then the suggestion that videogame players might have the same reduced size of said brain part, little nod of the head towards doing more research – all under the headline “Were videogames responsible for the credit cruch?” If chiropractors can sue Simon Singh, EA should be able to sue the piss out of Greenfield.

  16. geehigh said,

    May 16, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Two thoughts occur: First Baroness Greenfield is a well-intentioned idiot (well, they can appear anywhere y’know). Second thought is that she is going to press with this abject unsubstantiated crap to cynically increase the public profile of herself, and to try to get funding for whatever she’s doing next.

    Sadly, I think it’s the second option.

    What a shame she appears to be debasing the very thing that she represents in the attempt.


  17. matodd said,

    May 16, 2009 at 9:50 am

    “You’re a silly little medic with the attitude of a silly little medic.” (The Inorganic Gardener).

    That’s exactly why I like the man. Silly people ask silly questions for fun. Sometimes these questions reveal that we are being told things that may not be true – sometimes by people with impressive qualifications. The World is sick – call the silly little medic!

  18. lizt said,

    May 16, 2009 at 10:02 am

    “While a child who falls out of a tree will quickly learn not to repeat the mistake…” Which ‘mistake’ do you think she is refering to? Falling out of the tree or climbing it in the first place? Given the context, I wouldn’t be surprised is she meant the latter.

    “…someone who goes wrong on a computer game will just keep playing.” Well, yes, but they too learn from their ‘mistakes’ in the game, otherwise they would not be able to advance through to higher levels, etc. – So what is the problem?

    I think the thing that annoys me the most about these ‘internet/computer games is bad for kids’ type stories is that they overlook the fact that kids do get a lot of social time at school, and they presumably typically live with other people (ie their family) – so even if a child goes home and stares at a screen for hours each night they are not going to loose their ability to interact with others.

    Why isn’t she worried about the social skills and development of empathy for all those children who spend every spare minute with their heads in a book?

  19. gimpyblog said,

    May 16, 2009 at 10:14 am

    I wonder what Greenfield’s position is on the wonderfully titled ‘PainStation’

  20. CDavis said,

    May 16, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Jeezers, the woman’s a razzole. Cut off a Raj Persaud and a Greenfield springs up to replace him.

    Is my memory corrupted, or didn’t she used to be a woomonger of the worst kind in her early life? ESP, psi and the whole schmeer? She supposedly rejected all that in favour of reality, but it seems to me that she’s slowly edging back in that direction – bolstered, presumably, by the knowledge that as a baroness and the head of a big scienceboi institution, everything she says must be right.

    You can take the baroness out of the woo…

  21. Suw said,

    May 16, 2009 at 10:19 am

    The Inorganic Gardener’s comment has made me curious. Well, the bit about it being her job to promote the public’s understanding of science, not the rest, which is just trollish wank.

    I’ve just had a good look round the Royal Institution of Great Britain’s website, and I can’t find a thing about Greenfield’s job being to promote the understanding of science amongst the general public. It lists her as Director, but does not say what the Director’s role is, nor what her role is specifically. Wikipedia, that great bastion of links to primary and secondary sources, doesn’t mention or link to anything that would clarify what exactly her job description at RI includes.

    This might seem to be a silly question to ask, given that the RI is all about “connecting people with the world of science”, but I’d like to know what Greenfield’s job description actually is and then we’d be able to assess her performance against the expectations.

    I’d also like to see her reined in by the RI’s governors as not only does she talk a lot of shit, but she’s primarily focused on pimping her own shit in an attempt to get funding. A friend of mine heard her talking, and her premise was “We spend all this time in front of computers, they must be doing shit to our brains, bad shit, baaaad shit, and we should study this, and oh look, that happens to be my speciality”.

    She’s not connecting the world to science at all, she’s engaging in baseless speculation and pimping her own speciality, and very badly at that.

    In my opinion, the Director of the RI should be much more interested in promoting good science done by other people, communicating to the media, government and schools about the amazing work being done by British scientists. They should not be using the platform of such a venerable old institution to promote and try and get funding for their own personal work.

    Can we start a petition or a letter writing campaign to get her removed?

  22. Synchronium said,

    May 16, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Another quality post, Ben. I don’t know why more people don’t listen to you. :(

  23. wewillfixit said,

    May 16, 2009 at 10:30 am

    CDavis – I think you are confusing her with Susan Blackmore.

  24. Jessicathejourno said,

    May 16, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Thanks, I Used to Be A Scientist – no FOI necessary, then.

    Enkephala, of which the Baroness is apparently a shareholder, is a subsidiary or an associated property of Cherwell Capital – which has another subsidiary or associated property, Mindweavers, whose property MindFit is.

    Here’s a release on their half-year 2008 results (see, press releases are good for something):

    That’s pretty funny. If only I was a British journalist. I’d already have half a story and it’s just gone noon.

  25. Jessicathejourno said,

    May 16, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Oh sorry, everybody already knew that.

    What? Everybody already knew that and she was allowed to do it?

    Holy shit.

  26. kevglobal said,

    May 16, 2009 at 11:55 am


    Your second thought that her motivation is to seek funding for her research is correct. At a staff briefing at the Guardian (the morning conference for staff), she stated her concern that “screen culture” was having some unspecified, but definitely detrimental, effect on our brains. This detrimental “screen culture” seemed not to include television, but only computers, and she played on biases against technology by claiming that computers were somehow culturally deficient when compared to theatre and books. It was an odd statement that seemed to be coming from the humanities side, rather than the science side, of CP Snow’s two cultures divide.

    She was challenged on whether she had any preliminary evidence to support her hypothesis claiming neurological damage from computers, social networking and video games. The answer was no, which is why she said that this was an area that needed funding for research.

  27. Dr Aust said,

    May 16, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    “The Inorganic Gardener” wrote:

    Get a life and realise you’ll NEVER be on par with Greenfield or her piers [sic]. You’re a silly little medic with the attitude of a silly little medic. Earn yourself a Ph.D and/or M.D and then I might start listening to you again.

    Can I just say that I have a Ph.D., and a quarter century in the trade, and work in a similar discipline to Professor Greenfield. I would have said this arguably makes me “one of her peers”, though I should say that I am not a Professor.

    Anyway, I think Ben has a point. Prof Greenfield did some excellent work with her early books and her RI lectures, and many of our students used to name those as reasons why they got interested in doing science, or specifically neuroscience, degrees. But in my opinion she does science, and herself, no service at all by talking airily about stuff outside her real expertise, which she has increasingly tended to do over the last few years.

  28. HoldThemToAccount said,

    May 16, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I’ve heard Susan Greenfiled talk about this and she makes it very clear that she is asking for research to be done and that there is no evidence. Given her neurophysiological experience I think it is fair enough for her to suggest that this should be investigated. No surpise that the tabs misreport it.

    PLEASE – may I ask that you move on to addressing the disgraceful nonsense being touted this week by Chris Woodhead who tells us that the middle classes have superior genes. I have always been impressed by utter inability to grasp science – and basic arithmetic if memory serves me well.

  29. T said,

    May 16, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    I’m with you in regards to chris woodhead….having been around the block a bit and ended up back at uni as a dyslexic reject from the system of the late 80s….Im now at uni with lots of privately educated youths, as lovely as most of them are, many are not as bright as they think, but they have an air of confidence that gets them through, and I suspect help with course work during A levels to get them higher grades. I know brighter kids the same age who didnt go to uni because of costs and different expectations, chris Woodhead really misses the point that tertairy education is biased towards the middle and upper classes.We live in a country with no oil, gas, resources to speak off…an educated society is what we have as a resource…its optunities to educate as many across the board and offer research scholorships to as many as we can…may help to get us out of this economic rut.(apologies for spelling i dont have a spell check installed on this pc)

  30. igb said,

    May 16, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    I’ve heard Susan Greenfiled talk about this and she makes it very clear that she is asking for research to be done and that there is no evidence. Given her neurophysiological experience I think it is fair enough for her to suggest that this should be investigated.

    Perhaps, but “all I’m asking is for more research to be done” is a popular get-out for people working either outside their field or outside the evidence. Quite a lot of the vaccine nuttery is based on the “all I want is for it to be proved safe” position being used as a thin veneer over “let me make some unsupported accusations”. Greenfield could ask for more research work to be done, but only at the expense of not endlessly touting what she thinks it should find. Ed Balls did this, when he asked for more research to demonstrate that dyslexia is a specific condition: if you know the answer, why bother with the study?

    disgraceful nonsense being touted this week by Chris Woodhead who tells us that the middle classes have superior genes.

    Why is this `disgraceful nonsense’? Did the idea of assortive mating suddenly become controversial? In a society in which academic ability has tended to be rewarded financially, and people tend to marry within their educational peer group, either academic ability will be inherited or you have to believe that academic ability has no genetic component (and if you extended genes into memes, nature or nurture don’t matter: the children of the academic get leg up either way).

    Now I think society should do what it can to extend opportunity as widely as possible, and believe the sort of grim biological determinism that the right extract from the heritability of success is appalling. But you have to be spending a lot of time with the fairies at the bottom of your garden to reject out of hand the contentions that (a) there are genetic traits which are more or less adapted to our current society (b) those genes are heritable and (c) mating patterns tend to be assortive. What you do with that conclusion is a political discussion, but the left has a worrying history of attempting to dismiss as untrue things which it thinks lead to undesirable conclusions.

    And just coming into the room to rebut Mr Woodhead’s opinions is our good friend Trofim.

  31. j said,

    May 16, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I’ve heard Susan Greenfiled talk about this and she makes it very clear that she is asking for research to be done and that there is no evidence. Given her neurophysiological experience I think it is fair enough for her to suggest that this should be investigated. No surpise that the tabs misreport it.

    I’ve recently blogged about a Wired article by Greenfield. Even what Greenfield has written herself (although I appreciate that Wired may have edited the article she wrote) is, I would argue, highly problematic.

  32. warhelmet said,

    May 16, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Young people are rubbish. They have no gravitas. And they hang around outside of shops asking their elders to buy them booze & fags.

  33. Fortinbras said,

    May 16, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Fifteen years ago or so I was at Lincoln College, Oxford, where Susan Greenfield was Tutor for Graduates. She was an absolute star in that role, incredibly supportive and helpful, at a time when the college authorities were treating us pretty shabbily. I haven’t forgotten, and I’m grateful to her. This doesn’t mean everything she’s done since is marvellous, but I just feel the need to put it on the record.

  34. HoldThemToAccount said,

    May 16, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    T said – yup.

    And why did Woodhead continue to occupy his well-paid post if he believed education was a waste of time?

    igb – I didn’t say ‘more research’. And – do you happen to know what Susan Greenfield’s subject area is?
    BTW – I’m not defending the scare story, just interested in the emotional response from folks about it.

    Also –
    It’s ‘assortative’ not ‘assortive’.
    Also –
    On genetics, I think you may be well out of your depth. Perhaps you are middle class. :) Have a look at all the research that shows that the least competent tend to be the most confident.

    EOD until I hear Ben’s views on Woodhead.

  35. T said,

    May 16, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    expectation….middle upper class whatever u call it expect their progeny to go go to uni. Traditionally working class families do not have the same expectations. we as a country should be making all strata of our social system feel that they can proceed to further education if they wish. Its totally bull to say that the working classes are less genetically able to go to uni. I find it really offensive. an education should be available to everyone.obviously some people are going to not want to go or not be that academic…but their social background should not be a factor in this. Expectation, give all of society the same expectations, why not? whats wrong with that?

  36. peterd102 said,

    May 16, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    I anticpate Ben saying – “Its a bit more complicated than that”

  37. arthurkipps said,

    May 16, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    The woman is a joke. Brain scientists run a mile when her name comes up.

    But you dilute the message when you make things up. For example, the bit about the RI, “where she has charged herself with promoting the public’s understanding of science” is wrong.

    Promoting the public’s understanding of science is the RI’s remit, alongside the science, which I bet they don’t let her near.

    So she is doing the job that the people who hired to do. Not very well, I agree. But someone banging on about people getting stuff wrong has to be especially careful not to fall into the same trap.

    That is what you get when you make snide comments rather than considered observations. But take away the snide and what have you got left?

  38. mikey2gorgeous said,

    May 16, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    As a parent of kids who use games consoles & PCs for a variety of things, I prefer to use indicators (such as their behaviour & achievements at school) to decide how well they are doing – not simply how long they choose to play or their waistlines.
    What is the point of giving someone a first class education if we then allow the media & idiot commentators to feed them cr*p about what is right & wrong? We have a generation of parents now who are afraid to let their children rides bikes without scaring them into wearing helmets, afraid to feed them ‘E’ numbers, afraid to immunise them.
    What Baroness SG is doing is the thin end of a wedge which is causing at the least unnecessary worry, at worst unnecessary deaths.

  39. geehigh said,

    May 17, 2009 at 7:42 am


    Thanks for the info which filled a few gaps in for me.

    Come to think of it, there are lots of gaps in my head: Perhaps Sue can check ’em out for me? :)

  40. stever said,

    May 17, 2009 at 8:49 am

    extremely dissapointing to see that her commercial interests in video games have been edited from the Guardian copy – surely one of the main points of the piece. ridiculous.

    I also feel obliged to re-flag-up one of Greenfields’ former epic fails, this time regards cannabis, (following the announcement of its now reversed reclassification) here:

    in which she not only recycles and hypes much bad science, and wheels out a smörgåsbord of logical fallacies, but then totally inappropriately translates her analysis into criminal justice policy (i.e mass criminalisation/inprisonment of young people as public health /education policy) – something that even she would presumably acknowledge she knows absolutely nothing about, and needless to say, for which she presents no evidence.

    she rounds off with:

    “It is argued that we will never stamp out cannabis use, and therefore we should give up trying. But we will not stamp out murder or house break-ins or mugging, yet I’ve never heard an argument for freeing up police time by liberalising the law on these acts.”

    an argument of such idiocy that it alone warrants retirement from public life.

  41. lizt said,

    May 17, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for the link stever – hadn’t seen that article before. Just can’t quite believe how inaccurate it is – does she actually read any journal articles or talk to relevant experts before she decides what her opinion is on a topic?
    I really don’t understand how she can call herself a scientist when she so actively misrepresents research findings.

  42. sweynh said,

    May 17, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks for all this background information on Baroness Greenfield’s opinions and prejudices in this area. She was on Any Answers on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago when the question came up: “Social Networking sites, more harm than good?”. Only being vaguely aware of who she was, I found her suggestions (that social networking sites “infantalise”, that they increase risks of a “shaky sense of identity”, and that overuse could lead to a worrying lack of opportunity to “exercise” those parts of the brain used in personal face-to-face interaction) completely unbelievable even at first hearing.

    In fact, so ludicrous did this sound (this of course, being nothing more than my own reaction, with no particular evidence backing it up) that I was reminded that there have been fears about the dangers of EVERY new thing, EVER – even novel-reading when that was new a couple of hundred years ago! Of course, these fears have sometimes been more marked where the new thing has been popular among young people, women or other threatening and/or less-powerful groups.

    e.g. “Many young girls from morning to night, hang over this pestiferous reading, to the neglect of industry, health, proper exercise, and to the ruin both of body and of soul … the increase of novels will help to account for the increase of prostitution and for the numerous adulteries and elopements that we hear of in the different parts of the kingdom”
    (from Evils of Adultery and Prostitution, 1792,
    quoted in “The Persistence of Reading: Governing Female Novel-Reading in Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers”, by Katherine Binhammer, Eighteenth-Century Life, Volume 27, Number 2, Spring 2003)

    At least the other Baroness on that particular Any Questions panel was more sensible; Baroness Helena Kennedy said “There’s not enough hours in the day; but I think it is more good than harm”. If she finds the time, maybe she will tweet that :)

  43. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 18, 2009 at 1:26 am

    You seem to be saying that she’s a sort of neurological Gillian McKeith.

    In other news
    They’re letting Rupert Sheldrake on the radio again. First time I’ve heard of all the people in an edition of [The Museum of Curiosity] and one of them is him.

  44. noahwilliamgray said,

    May 18, 2009 at 4:14 am

    It is easy to make a compelling story for the press when one cherry-picks only the most tender of scientific hypotheses and anecdotes (notice I didn’t use the term “data”). Therefore when promoting the notion that social media and video games are detrimental to public health, it follows that Professor Greenfield will likely ignore this study, actually peer-reviewed and published in an academic journal.

    From the abstract:

    We found that the very act of action video game playing also enhanced contrast sensitivity, providing a complementary route to eyesight improvement.

  45. CDavis said,

    May 18, 2009 at 8:16 am

    @23 wewillfixit

    Damn, you’re right – silly, confused me.

    I apologise to the good baroness for mistakenly suggesting that her current lunacy has an historical basis.

    It seems that Ms. Blackmore has actually embraced reality rather firmly in her own later life.

  46. chatsubo said,

    May 18, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Greenfields not doing science, just opinion.

    IMHO, the crux of her article seems to be ‘I don’t like video games and social networking sites – so if I don’t like them – they must be bad for people.’

    I don’t like morris dancing, but until the results of the morris dancing cohort studies are in, I’m not going to make wild claims about the passtime.

  47. smithers said,

    May 18, 2009 at 10:24 am


    “No surpise that the tabs misreport it”

    Absolutely but, as Ben says, “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.”

    She’s been around long enough to know how the mass media will treat hypotheses of this sort, so why keep at it unless she’s engaging in a fairly cynical attempt to scare up some research money?

  48. spindle said,

    May 18, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    The impression I’ve picked up from hearing her talk about this on a couple of radio shows is not that she’s asking for a sober evaluation of the evidence, but that (as others have pointed out) she is putting this forward as fact, with the “surely this is worth investigating” caveat being a transparent fig-leaf of the sort more familiar from creationists’ pimping of “intelligent design”. She’s suffering from Pauling’s Syndrome, something distressingly common in eminent scientists who come to believe that any idea that pops into their heads is true and important.

  49. used to be jdc said,

    May 18, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    To say that Greenfield has “previous” on this would be putting it mildly. New technology will limit our individuality*, computers may cause autism**, computer games make you reckless [the blog post on the Wired article linked to by j in comment 31.], Facebook makes kids selfish, or fat, or…

    It’s usually about the terrible things that technology may lead to – but especially anything to do with computers “rewiring the brain”. Maybe that’s a phrase that makes journalists go weak at the knees – it does seem to keep cropping up.

    *From the Indy in 2003: Linky.
    **Something I blogged about here.

  50. Paul Maurice Martin said,

    May 18, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Sounds pretty scary. Someone in a position like that, given the growing lack of understanding of the scientific method in a significant portion of the population (I should add that I base this perception on the US public, influenced by the rise of the Christian right – probably not as bad in the UK) can pass off speculation as fact in the minds of large numbers of people.

  51. SteveGJ said,

    May 18, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    It seems to me once a respected scientist becomes a member of the House of Lords they are on the slippery slope to loose speculation and forgetting the rules of empirical evidence. I am, of course, basing my entire hypothesis on a sample of two; Lord Robert Winston (happily plugging omega-3 and some strange stuff on the existence of god) and Baroness Susan Greenfield off on some strange, speculative scientific journey. Perhaps it’s associating with all those politicians.

    Of course choosing just two such members of the House of Lords is not exactly statistically significant, but I guess it is two out of a very small number. How many scientists are currently peers and do any of the others show such symptoms?

    I wonder whether Lord Kelvin went off on flights of scientific fancy (I know he got a bad reputation for stating that the Earth couldn’t be old enough to support evolution, based on some simple thermodynamics, but I seem to recall hearing that he did introduce a caveat that this was unless some new form of energy was discovered – something that is almost never mentioned).

    Nb. whatever the merit of these particular speculation, then I think there are some perfectly valid studies that ought to be performed. It certainly can’t be dismissed that the type of exposure we get to modern communications, media and other systems doesn’t have some tangible effects. For instance, is the modern perception that attention spans have dwindled true? If true, it is a physiological change to the brain, or simply a psychological difference (if you can even distinguish the two).

  52. Wikidd said,

    May 18, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    ““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.”” … ““Computer use could be cutting attention spans, stifling imagination and hampering empathy””

    This is one of those classic canards from someone who neither plays nor understands video games. Firstly, she contradicts herself. How is making a mistake and then keeping playing a sign of shorter attention spans? If anything its a sign that the yoof of today do have very deep attention spans for complex systems.

    Secondly, when you get something wrong in a video game you have to think about why you got it wrong. This can involve (depending on the game) quite a high level of imaginative thought. The art of game design is making the player be creative in a logical fashion by giving them a system that is understandable through experimentation. Having something too oddball or cryptic is a recipe for frustration and will turn players off; the goal is to have a system that will give players a “eureka” moment. Too much information makes it too easy, too little is too frustrating. It’s like constructing a good logic puzzle but orders of magnitude harder.

    This latches onto the last part, empathy. Video games are designed by human beings and I’m sure all gamers can think of times where we’ve spent hours trying to figure out what, exactly, the designer was thinking when it came to a particular part of a game. Depending on the genre, figuring out the game systems can involve all sorts of complicated cultural cues (this is why some of the best Japanese games never leave those shores, too much would be lost) and as a player you sometimes really have to get inside the head of the designer in order to succeed in the game.

    I think the reality is that video games can focus attention, encourage imagination and widen the world-view and thought processes of the gamer. I do think, however, that it depends on the game in question.

    That’s not a subtle dig at GTA btw, I think the GTA games are some of the best in that regard. It’s just unfortunate that they’re centred around gangs and violence but hey, that’s what sells. That’s why Hollywood uses those tricks too.

  53. spindle said,

    May 18, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Worth listening to this edition of “All in the Mind”, and reading the comments on the blog post.

    “I await her insights into how the modern media environment contributes to narcissistic personality disorder.”

  54. chatsubo said,

    May 18, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    “This is one of those classic canards from someone who neither plays nor understands video games”

    well said. The learning curve for something like the Zelda games is perfectly pitched – problem solving, spatial awareness, exploration and then awareness of your environment, and not least, a growing sense of emotional awareness and empathy with the world around you.

    Is GTA4 suitable for kids? Of course not, no more than Reservoir Dogs is suitable for kids. But just because a medium can carry an adult-only message does not mean that the medium is inherently unsuitable for children. It depends on the message.

    Blame the parents stupid or irresponsiable enough to let their kids play age inappropriate games rather than the industry.

  55. Cairnos said,

    May 19, 2009 at 3:26 am

    “Computer use could be cutting attention spans, ”

    Three words

    World of Warcraft

  56. smithers said,

    May 19, 2009 at 7:54 am

    There was a children’s author on TV this morning (because writing for the little darlings obviously makes you highly qualified to speak about all aspects of their development) saying that ‘something’s going wrong with our children’ ‘we’re seeing more and more emotional problems’ etc with technology etc being the obvious villain. Apparently there’s a new programme on CBBC that will teach kids emotional intelligence and make them happy…as opposed to all those shows that were designed to make them unhappy. FFS.

  57. Om said,

    May 19, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    – The Inorganic Gradener said: “here she has charged herself with promoting the public’s understanding of science”

    No Ben, that’s her job. She has not charged herself with anything. Whilst you may disagree with her (as I myself do) she’s not “charged herself” with doing anything.

    …what? you think she took the job having no clue what it entailed and had those responsibilities dropped in her lap to her shock and delight? or is it perhaps more likely that she saw the job description, thought ‘i can do that’ and applied?

  58. NearlyDidDentistry said,

    May 19, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    The Inorganic Gardener said:

    “Earn yourself a Ph.D and/or M.D. and then I might start listening to you again. ”

    Er…… Not being funny, but…… Hasn’t Ben had his medical degree for years now?

    Are you referring to the fact that an M.D. (as conferred in (e.g.) North America) is a graduate program, and therefore superior to a medical degree from the UK, which is an undergraduate program?
    (actually, MD and MBChB are considered equal due to the fact that 3 or 4 good UK A-levels are on academic parity with a US science Bachelors)

    I don’t see why peer observation should only be valid if it is directed towards a lower member of the academic qualifications hierarchy.

    “My Dad’s bigger than your Dad” is alive and well, it would appear.

  59. sleepy said,

    May 21, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    For what it’s worth, I used to work at Heriot-Watt University where Greenfield was and is the Chancellor. She was coming out with this kind of stuff around this time last year, promoting her new book, and as a researcher working with computer game technology at the same university I tried to question and refute some of her claims in our project blog:

  60. Andrew Steele said,

    May 22, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    I interviewed her for one of the Oxford student papers and I’m pretty sure that, if she bothers to get back to you, it will simply be to reiterate that her claims are just a hypothesis. As she helpfully explained to me, ‘you have to start with a hypothesis’.

    She is very keen to abrogate responsibility for her appearance in the popular press, which might be a bit more plausible if she didn’t appear in it so frequently and say such gloriously evidence-free things as she does in this delightful interview with the Telegraph. The quote about the Twin Towers is especially terrifying.

  61. T said,

    May 23, 2009 at 8:39 am

    “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying games. But don’t you think it’s strange that people are engaging in activities that have no purpose? Spending their precious time and money sitting in front of a screen in a make-believe world when they could be out there having love affairs and doing things in the real world?

    This quote made me chuckle…no I’m not worried about these people, I’d be more worried if they were doing whatever it is they like doing out in the real domain?

  62. pretentious said,

    May 24, 2009 at 8:44 am

    As a scientist / engineer by nature and in outlook (yes, I’m aware of the target that statement represents in terms of its scientific validity on many levels), I can’t disgree with many of the critcisms of Greenfield herein.

    However, I’m struck my the dearth of voices which concede that there may be some truth behind what appears to have been expressed in a counterproductive manner and context.

    I am a “non resident” parent of three children. The eldest is hoping to do maths at Cambridge starting a year and a half from now (and is aware he might not get in).

    His younger sister will not do as well, not being as intensely enthused by any particular subject, but is more of an all rounder in terms of driving herself.

    They have a younger brother in primary school. His school performance is at best mediocre. More that once, he’s been provided with extra tuition in maths (arthimetic, to use the distinction we have in Scotland) and English. When visiting me I’ve observed him to be perfectly capable of undertaking these lessons.

    In day to day interactions, he doesn’t listen, he doesn’t remember, and doesn’t concentrate. A child’s capacity for absorbing new information is, in my own experience, and my vicarious experience of my children, unparalleled. His behaviour is in jarring contrast with that.

    Anecdotally, then, I consider that, until proved incorrect, the fact that his “resident parent” (or “mother”) permitted him (in contrast with the experince of the elder two) unlimited television viewing at all times of day, and unlimited computer game playing, from an early age, is an adequate explanation for his characteristics.

    I appears to me, from the nature of his interest in nothing other than exposure to TV, film of “sci-fi” variety, and computer games, that his deficiencies are mere bad “mental habits” induced or encouraged by that excessive exposure.

    So I’d welcome some authoritative and un-ignorable “health warning” which someone who is burying their head in the sand and tinkering at the edges with tutors etc. could not ignore.

    This, of course, purely personal self interest – otherwise I’d have the freedom to adopt the scientific purist approach advocated by the bulk of the contributors here, and wait a few decades for research to be conducted, published, accepted, and instantiated on policy (or for the consequences already to have manifested themselves).

  63. bluefoot said,

    May 30, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Pretentious misses the point. It’s not whether the ideas are plausible or not – it’s how opinion is being presented as science. Susan Greenfield has a respectable publication record on the topic of neuropharmacology. She has no track record in developmental psychology or psychopathology. She is entitled to her views, but she is behaving badly when she uses her position to give credibility to opinions on which she has no expertise, particularly when some topics, such as whether computers could put children at risk for autism, are highly emotive. It’s stressful enough having a child with autism without being made to feel you may have helped cause it because a top neuroscientist says you have ‘reprogrammed the brain’.
    On the same basis, the Chris Woodhead stuff is irrelevant – Chris Woodhead does not offer his opinions as any kind of expert in genetics. It is clear that they are just opinions of a grumpy old man who is fed up with political correctness. It would not be appropriate for Ben to criticise him in Bad Science because he is not even pretending to present science.

  64. irishaxeman said,

    May 31, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Speaking as a teacher the bad habits are ingrained in many kids from day one as they are drilled (not educated)into passing national tests.
    Much of what they do in revision or exploration is now computer-based (thanks to Health & Safety) and scientific education is generally woeful. They obtain what they think are instant results just by pressing a button, and increasingly their ability to think becomes an extension of their play and social worlds.
    It is not the machines that do it, it is the leakage of the machines and what they appear to offer into the worlds of education and social intercourse, and how they are used to manage children in this over-controlled society.
    Many of my students do not often go out – due to parental safety concerns – and conduct much of their social lives on Facebook. They also expect information to be delivered pre-digested to them because that is done in Key Stage 4 by schools scared into doing anything to increase their results profiles. Everything is NOW, and many intelligent kids who have reasonable GCSEs are totally unable to develop research strategies or interests using books.
    So for me it is not the machines as much as the politics and mechanics of education that is harming the prefrontal cortex! A case of active neglect?

  65. wetnap said,

    June 17, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    her fail continued a few days ago on bbc’s daily mayo radio show.
    the link should be live for probably the next few days for that podcast.

    it was shocking to hear how simplistic, ignorant, and patronizing her reasoning was. this woman is a “director” of something? goes to show the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. her concern comes from the basis that other people are complete idiots i guess. the idea that a kid playing violent video games won’t realize that violence in real life will have consequences is laughable. never mind her claim that video games do not punish users for their actions. the WHOLE POINT of video games is that users are rewarded for understanding the game mechanic,and punished for failing, that is the idea behind any GAME. i just listened and was stunned as this woman spewed out sentence after sentence..each more ridiculous than the last. it was simply amazing. the label of “royal” and “baroness” really have zero meaning when standards are this low.

  66. fencen said,

    June 21, 2009 at 9:50 am

    I wonder if it is valid for a scientist or academic to raise theoretical concerns in their field? I had interpreted Susan Greenfield’s remarks rather differently and seen them as a call for research (although I’m not sure she explicitly made such a call). There are a number of issues regarding computer use in the developing child much which is related to the length of time using a computer and perhaps musculo-skeletal damage is a greater potential problem. But it is useful to balance these views (which are just views) against a message that computer use is making your child more intelligent and they are missing out if they don’t have access to this. I would have thought that the fact that susan/dr/prof/baroness greenfield’s comments were counter to her invested interests in the development of computer apllications was a positive thing?

  67. Michael Slezak said,

    September 17, 2009 at 7:50 am

    Ben, you’ll be disappointed to hear that the baroness is coming to Australia and setting up Royal Institution here.

    Just yesterday a column appeared on the website of Australia’s only national newspaper rehashing her baseless claims. I’ve blogged about it here:

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  70. eurogene said,

    January 9, 2010 at 9:20 am

    “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.”

    How did “could be” become “will not” ??


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  73. rien said,

    December 17, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    As to the virtues of falling from a tree over gaming, why not give it a clinical trial? Let 1000 children play video games and drop 1000 children from a tree and see which group has more brain damage*.

    A quick google search learns, that falls account for 35% of brain injuries, while ‘recreational activities’ cause 29%*. Now assuming these categories are mutually exclusive, and ´recreational activities´ do not include falls from trees, but do include computer games -along with other recreational activities such as rugby, ice hockey, headbanging, cage fighting and glue sniffing- my best guess would be that falling from trees is more damaging to the young, developing brain*.

    (To see if they are independent factors, children should be dropped from trees with computers.)

    * see Incidence, Severity, and External Causes of Pediatric Brain Injury, Jess F. Kraus, MPH, PhD; Daniel Fife, MD, MPH; Pamela Cox, MPH; Karen Ramstein, MPH; Carol Conroy, MPH
    Am J Dis Child. 1986;140(7):687-693.

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