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. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.”

  4. 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.

  5. Cairnos said,

    May 19, 2009 at 3:26 am

    “Computer use could be cutting attention spans, ”

    Three words

    World of Warcraft

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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:

  10. 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.

  11. 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?

  12. 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).

  13. 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.

  14. 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?

  15. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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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  20. 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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  23. 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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