Argument From Authority – Baroness Greenfield on Autism


She is at it again, making silly pronouncements, this time it is Autism. Least you missed it, in New Scientist, she has been casually linking internet use with autism. (So no not vaccines, just using the Internet). Now, since this is Baroness Greenfield, CBE,  scientist, writer, broadcaster, and member of the House of Lords, specializes in the physiology of the brain, and has worked to research and bring attention to Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease – we can just take her word for it … right?

Exactly, the old “I’m a doctor just trust me” line simply does not cut it when it comes to claims like this. So what do you need? How about some actual “Evidence”.

Many thought the same, and among that number we have Oxford neuropsychologist Dr. Dorothy Bishop. Her objections soon led  to a high-profile spat between the two. She was not alone, many science writers, including Carl Zimmer and Martin Robbins also agree. Martin writes here in the Guardian a few days ago

if she is going to make these claims, she needs to be able to back them up with evidence. The New Scientist interview is revealing in that, when directly asked to produce some, Greenfield points vaguely to “an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders … issues with happy-slapping, the rise in the appeal of Twitter.”

The two studies that are cited don’t provide much support. One looks at brain structure in people with ‘internet addiction disorder,’ a condition whose potential classification as a psychological disorder is highly controversial (many argue it’s simply a manifestation of other problems), and in any case not relevant unless she believes most people will become addicted to the internet.

The second, a 2010 review by Daphne Bavelier in the journal Neuron, is a fascinating piece of work far more nuanced than Greenfield’s treatment of it would suggest, arguing that our understanding of technological influences on the brain is in its infancy, and showing that the effects are often very positive. It’s worth noting that if Greenfield put forward the same, balanced arguments for more research made by Bavelier, few of her critics would have a problem with it. It’s sensible to look at the impact of technology on our brains, it’s not sensible to make huge claims about the impact to the public before you’ve researched it.

Incidentally, it is worth clicking the link and reading all of Martin’s article on that, the above is just a brief snippet, he goes into a lot of the details regarding the claims made, its a great article.

Still not too sure about all this and perhaps willing to give a highly experienced academic the benefit of the doubt? OK, think of it this way. Dr. Dorothy Bishop published an open letter to her Oxford colleague in which she points out that the rise in autism diagnoses dates to before internet use became common,and that autism usually emerges in toddlers “long before children become avid users of Twitter or Facebook”,  so there is no need for you to panic and rush off to stop your eighteen month old surfing Facebook.

She also nails it when she explains, quite rightly, that the parents of Autistic children simply do not need more non-scientific crap dished out by the media:

“You may not realise just how much illogical garbage and ill-formed speculation parents of children with these conditions are exposed to. Over the years, they’ve been told that their children’s problems are caused by their cold style of interaction, inoculations, dental amalgams, faulty diets, allergies, drinking in pregnancy – the list is endless. Now we can add to this list internet use.

So when faced with arguments from authority like this one, please don’t sup from that poisoned chalice. Instead be skeptical, push back, and demand evidence.

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