Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 22 October 2011
This week Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of pharmacology at Oxford, apparently announced that computer games are causing dementia in children. This would be very concerning scientific information: but it comes to us from the opening of a new wing at an expensive boarding school, not an academic conference. Then a spokesperson told a gaming site that’s not really what she meant. But they couldn’t say what she does mean.
Two months ago the same professor linked internet use with the rise in autism diagnoses (not for the first time), then pulled back when autism charities and an Oxford professor of psychology raised concerns. Similar claims go back a very long way. They seem changeable, but serious.
It’s with some trepidation that anyone writes about Professor Greenfield’s claims. When I raised concerns, she said I was like the epidemiologists who denied that smoking caused cancer. Other critics find themselves derided as sexist in the media. When Professor Dorothy Bishop raised concerns, Professor Greenfield responded: “it’s not really for Dorothy to comment on how I run my career”.
But I have one, humble question: why, in over 5 years of appearing in the media raising these grave worries, has Professor Greenfield of Oxford University never simply published the claims in an academic paper?
A scientist with enduring concerns about a serious widespread risk would normally set out their concerns clearly, to other scientists, in a scientific paper, and for one simple reason. Science has authority, not because of white coats, or titles, but because of precision and transparency: you explain your theory, set out your evidence, and reference the studies that support your case. Other scientists can then read it, see if you’ve fairly represented the evidence; and decide whether the methods of the papers you’ve cited really do produce results that meaningfully support your hypothesis.
Perhaps there are gaps in our knowledge? Great. The phrase “more research is needed” has famously been banned by the British Medical Journal, because it’s uninformative: a scientific paper is the place to clearly describe the gaps in our knowledge, and specify new experiments that might resolve these uncertainties.
But the value of a scientific publication goes beyond this simple benefit, of all relevant information appearing, unambiguously, in one place. It’s also a way to communicate your ideas to your scientific peers, and invite them to express an informed view.
In this regard, I don’t mean peer review, the “least-worst” system settled on for deciding whether a paper is worth publishing, where other academics decide if it’s accurate, novel, and so on. This is often represented as some kind of policing system for truth, but in reality, some dreadful nonsense gets published, and mercifully so: shaky material of some small value can be published into the buyer-beware professional literature of academic science; then the academic readers of this literature, who are trained to critically appraise a scientific case, can make their own judgement.
And it is this second stage of review by your peers – after publication – that is so important in science. If there are flaws in your case, responses can be written, as letters, or even whole new papers. If there is merit in your work, then new ideas and research will be triggered. That is the real process of science.
If a scientist sidesteps their scientific peers, and chooses to take an apparently changeable, frightening, and technical scientific case directly to the public, then that is a deliberate decision, and one that can’t realistically go unnoticed. The lay public might find your case superficially appealing, but they may not be fully able to judge the merits of all your technical evidence.
I think these serious scientific concerns belong, at least once, in a clear scientific paper. I don’t see how this suggestion is inappropriate, or impudent, and in all seriousness, I can’t see an argument against it. I hope it won’t elicit an accusation of sexism, or of participation in a cover-up. I hope that it will simply result in an Oxford science professor writing a scientific paper, about a scientific claim of great public health importance, that they have made repeatedly – but confusingly – for at least half a decade.