Why won’t Professor Susan Greenfield publish this theory in a scientific journal?

November 3rd, 2011 by Ben Goldacre in academic pr, dodgy academic press releases, susan greenfield | 27 Comments »

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.


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27 Responses



  1. TP said,

    November 4, 2011 at 12:54 am

    A good example of Greeenfiled’s scientific approach is her anecdote (evidence?)
    “I have heard a sad story about a little girl who was in the kitchen using a new toaster and asked her father: ”Do I put the slice of bread in portrait or landscape?””

    Apparently this is evidence that “Our brain is susceptible to everything. ” (?????)
    and that
    “Evidence of a link between spending too much time staring at computer screens and physical changes in the brain that lead to attention and behaviour problems is accumulating”
    and that this
    “is what makes you suspect that there might be a causal link”.

    She likes to think of herself as being up there with Richard Doll, but without the evidence…

  2. kingshiner said,

    November 4, 2011 at 2:55 am

    Nice piece, a model of restraint. Probably wise.

    The Mail article quotes Baroness Greenfield as thinking that, among other things, we need to feel the grass in our face. The only time I ever felt grass in my face was when I was forced to play Rugby at school. I think Rugby can be dangerous too.

  3. wellinghall said,

    November 4, 2011 at 6:14 am

    You get a mention on Boing Boing:
    boingboing.net/

    Andrew

  4. Alisdair said,

    November 4, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Indeed.

    I have to admit I lost respect for Susan Greenfield when she booked Kevin Warwick to give the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. I note that Warwick too seems to like making sensational claims in the media — though to be fair, I haven’t checked, he may have actually got a paper about robots taking over the world into a peer-reviewed journal.

  5. DHC said,

    November 4, 2011 at 7:05 am

    Baroness Greenfield lost all credibility for me when she starting spouting ill-informed nonsense about cannabis. Highlights include: ”And if cannabis were ‘just the same’ as alcohol and cigarettes, why are people not taking those already legal drugs for the much-lauded pain-relief effects?”

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

  6. AnotherBee said,

    November 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Other people are publishing studies in related fields and coming to different conclusions (www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074756321000244X for example).
    This doesn’t mean that Susan Greenfield is wrong, but it does mean that, for the purposes of policy formation, she should be ignored until she offers some evidence for scruitiny.

  7. Beaver991 said,

    November 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    I know that article only touches on game or Facebook addiction this might also interest people who want to know about the topic from a game designers point of view.
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=00SvIIualUw

  8. Jodie Harper said,

    November 5, 2011 at 1:13 am

    A few years ago I read one of Greenfield’s book and all I can say is that from a psychological / scientific perspective it’s a pile of fictitious tripe. Over the past decade some great contributions have been made to CyberPsychology (study of internet behaviour) yet in Greenfield’s 2008 book she uses almost irrelevant neurological studies to put forward ideas about how the internet will change people in the near future. Whilst the book was interesting for fictional purposes the empirical evidence was very weak, often not being about internet behaviour at all, why use such evidence when there is a lot of sound evidence out there published in journals? Probably because she likes to make her claims seem dramatic and seem that they are empirically supported with ‘proper’ science (i.e. neurological concepts) even if in reality they don’t really support her claims.

    I feel that this is what Greenfield does with every claim that she makes in the media, she uses irrelevant neuroscience to make it all seem sciency. If she took her theories to a scientific journal the lack of scientific rationality would be spotted and the work wouldn’t get published.

    I hate the way that she’s seen as a leading CyberPsychologist and technology expert, she really gives the real professionals a bad name. Quite frankly I believe the Professor Green (the rapper / singer) could come up with a more rational theory that Professor Greenfield!!!

  9. Jodie Harper said,

    November 5, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Spelling mistakes – *books rather than books and *than rather than that! I’m tired o_O

  10. BobHarvey said,

    November 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Nicely said, Mr Goldacre.

    My view is that some of her pronouncements may well have some truth in them. But we need to know, even if I am broadly in sympathy with what she says

  11. rennatian said,

    November 6, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Honorary Doctorate at Heriott-Watt (June 2009) where the Chancellor is………..! Ben, you’re not playing The Game.

  12. Jon Wade said,

    November 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    A good friend of mine used to play a lot of computer games all through his teenage years, now he runs part of Google.

    Maybe people who play more computer games will suffer from dementia at some point in their lives, but that certainly does not imply a cause. Maybe people who are at risk of developing dementia are more likely to become interested in computer games than sport? Maybe there is no connection whatsoever (more likely!).

    I used to play a lot of computer games. My nan had Alzheimer’s. If I develop dementia I hope people do not blame the Sinclair Spectrum!

  13. neurobonkers said,

    December 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Fully agree!

    My post on the same topic: neurobonkers.com/?p=815

    Dr. Pete Etchels reaches the same conclusion: counter-balanced.net/2011/12/03/on-greenfield/

    PS: When I tried to ask your question at the BPS talk I didn’t get picked to ask a question (which surprised me considering I was clearly the youngest person there by at least 15 years). Like Pete, I was flabbergasted by how the “academic” audience swallowed the entire talk without seeing a shred of evidence.

  14. matt59 said,

    December 9, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    @DHC

    i just read greenfield’s article
    www.guardian.co.uk/science/2002/aug 18/drugs.drugsandalcohol

    what a load of strawmen and hearsay. i really don’t understand how the woman can call herself a scientist and then put out shite like that

    1. “puff cannabis freely in the street without fear of arrest”

    er no, its still not legal

    2. “the myth that cannabis is ‘just the same as’ alcohol.”

    i have never heard any such myth and i do read around the subject

    3. “cannabis has its own specialised chemical targets, so far less [than alcohol] has a more potent effect”

    what, like less than half a bottle of cannabis? how is this in any way scientific

    4. “there are guidelines for the amount of alcohol that constitutes a ‘safe’ intake”

    because you can die through drinking alcohol, you can’t through ingesting cannabis
    because alcohol is legal and therefore controlled and cannabis is not. imagine the furore in the mail if the government issued advice about how much cannabis to use!

    5. “Another notion is that cannabis is less harmful than cigarettes”

    that may be a notion in your little world susan. see 2.

    6. “And if cannabis were ‘just the same’ as alcohol and cigarettes”

    its not

    7. “Even the most loony of liberals has not suggested tolerance for morphine or heroin abuse”

    except for many times. almost all research suggests that it is the illegality of “recreational” drugs which causes the most harm.

    8. “the issue that cannabis could indeed be lethal, in that the impaired driving it can trigger could well kill”

    who is suggesting it is good to drive after use? no-one

    9. “Moreover, there appears to be a severe impairment in attention span and cognitive performance in regular cannabis users”

    no-one suggests that drug use is without a downside. its really lucky that alcohol has no bad effects or we’d have to ban that too

    blah blah blah and i’m only halfway down the page

    *sighs*

    matt59

  15. allibags said,

    December 17, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Surely the problem is not necessarily going public with your conclusions, but instead refusing to go public with the data that lead you to them?

    Anyone can have an opinion, where the problem lies is in presenting your opinion as “truth”. Unless supported by data it can only be an opinion. If more data comes to light anyone who calls themselves a scientist should not see revising their position as in any way a failure…

  16. will_taylor22 said,

    December 22, 2011 at 2:19 am

    Professor Greenfield actually came to my college at university to give a talk. I, probably rudely (only in content, not delivery), said it seemed as though she was out of touch as she made the following claims:

    -There is not a single video game with a story as strong as any book. i.e the strongest video game story does not stand up to the weakest book.
    (As I was studying in my spare time for a career in game design this was particularly irritating but easy for me to counter – simply by describing some video games with good stories I had enjoyed. “Halo 1, Deus Ex, Half life 1 and 2, The Sims, Assassin’s creed…”)

    -That children consider themselves to have 700 actual friends when they have so on facebook, and thus do not feel any desire to make actual friends. I.e, that children are unable to distinguish between facebook friends and actual friends.

    I said this was just untrue, and if you use facebook you can judge for yourself, and that the fact they call a connection in facebook a “friend” is just a label.

    She replied that that’s easy for an educated person such as myself to say, but there are school children that aren’t getting it and are ONLY communicating by facebook because it’s easier.

    I didn’t get to say a response to that, but if I could it would be that I agree that there’s an element of truth, that communicating online IS substituting somewhat for actual interactions, I’m sure children always do make the distinction. Surely science could prove this one way or the other.

    Sorry to simply slag her off but my experience has only lead me to believe she is out of touch.

  17. spanksalot said,

    December 27, 2011 at 1:41 am

    I can think of an excellent reason: if she doesn’t particularly care about this, then why go to all the effort of doing a scientific trial?

  18. Rihari Wilson said,

    June 15, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    ”Do I put the slice of bread in portrait or landscape?” This appeared as a joke some time ago in some colonial newspaper or other. Perhaps that is where the professor heard the sad story

  19. upright dog said,

    July 19, 2012 at 8:47 am

    So what you’re saying is that she likes to make pronouncments as if she’s some kind of scientific authority, but she’s unwilling to go through the same kind of scrutiny of her claims that the rest of the community does?

    Sounds like a joy to be around.

  20. Bertje Tovey said,

    July 21, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Like Will Taylor, who commented above, I also heard Prof. Greenfield speak about the terrible damage computer games are doing to children’s brains. I suggested that her attitude was basically medium-elitism, and that some books were certainly less worthwhile than some computer games – whether as educational tools, entertainment, or even as art. She sidestepped the question completely by claiming that she couldn’t possibly be elitist because her parents were working class (or something like that). I found her attitude incredibly patronising, and intellectually dishonest. She’d be an excellent politician, though.

  21. Brett Montgomery said,

    August 12, 2012 at 11:46 am

    This article seems very sensible: theconversation.edu.au/your-brain-on-the-internet-a-response-to-susan-greenfield-8694

  22. hbw said,

    August 18, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Re: TP said,November 4, 2011 at 12:54 am

    A good example of Greeenfiled’s scientific approach is her anecdote (evidence?)

    “I have heard a sad story about a little girl who was in the kitchen using a new toaster and asked her father: ”Do I put the slice of bread in portrait or landscape?””
    —————————————————

    Actually, that’s an intelligent question. I would say portrait (easier to get out of the toaster when it’s done)

  23. NorfolkMuse said,

    August 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Maybe Prof Greenfield should invent a computer game entitled “Diagnosis” which gives rewards for correct factual interpretation, uncovering plots and hidden Agandas,discovering the big picture, with a bonus level for attending Science of Consciousness Conferences. The game could also have nested sub-routines for solving clues by reading books,understanding dual diagnosis, and a Ph.D. level entitled “correlation is not causation”.

  24. eitherorbored said,

    October 4, 2012 at 10:50 am

    TP: Personally, I have often been faced by the portrait/landscape question when it comes to the toasting of bread. The problem is if you put it in portrait there’s always that bit at the top of the slice that isn’t toasted properly. Landscape, however, does raise issues of getting the slice to fit properly – with a lack of space on either side. This can lead to issues when the toaster pops but does provide a more even toasting. Are we to believe that Greenfield has never pondered this problem? If so I believe it brings her academic credentials into considerable disrepute.

  25. MsJinnifer said,

    October 4, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Actually I think the child’s question about how to put bread into the toaster (portrait or landscape) shows a really creative use of language.

  26. joey89924 said,

    November 16, 2012 at 2:21 am

    I feel that this is what Greenfield does with every claim that she makes in the media, she uses irrelevant neuroscience to make it all seem sciency.
    www.hqew.net

  27. BiomedicalDude said,

    April 27, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    No one questioned her because too many scientists are fools. They are fools because they focus on the messenger and not the message [hey, just like grant reviewers]. For example, stupid scientists are blinded by ‘Oxford’ [similar to 'Harvard' in the U.S.], and forget about the message. Plus, most scientists are followers….they will wait for someone credible to say something and then jump in.