Susan Greenfield is a British scientist, writer, broadcaster, and member of the House of Lords, who specializes in the physiology of the brain, but don’t be impressed because she has a rather bad habit of publishing daft claims in the press that are not backed up with any real science – an appeal to authority, in this case herself, does not cut it, in science things are deemed to be not wrong, not because she says so, but rather because there is actual data available that verifies the claim being made.
You don’t have to look too far for examples, in Saturday’s Telegraph, she argues that the new “Facebook phone” will lead to a dangerous loss of privacy that will impact on brain function:
“Already we are seeing a generation of 20-somethings still living at home, wearing ‘onesies’ (all in one crawler suits usually reserved for very small infants), perhaps playing mythical or sci-fi games with simplified values of all-good or all-evil, and/or craving the constant attention of others through social networking sites … If we’re going to be living in a world where face-to-face interaction, unpractised as it is, becomes uncomfortable, then such an aversion to real life, three-dimensional communication combined with a more collective identity, may be changing the very nature of personal relationships themselves. The speed required for reaction and the reduced time for reflection might mean that those reactions and evaluations themselves are becoming increasingly superficial.”
Is there any substance to Greenfield’s latest claim? The short answer is no, but like most science stories, it is not that simple, because as another article explains …
A recent study by Alison Parkes and her colleagues looked at how watching TV and playing video games affects childhood development. It’s the latest study assessing a concept called “screen time” – basically, the amount of time spent per day using screen-based technology (TV, computers, smartphones, etc.). It’s an enticing concept because it’s so simple. If you can show that the sheer amount of time spent using something like Facebook has an effect on behavioural development, then it’s easy to come up with guidelines on curbing usage that will have an apparent impact on children’s lives.But, as with most things in life, the story isn’t so simple. Parkes asked whether technology use at age five was associated with detrimental effects on behaviour at age seven – for example, hyperactivity or aggression. The results were nuanced. After accounting for other factors that could cause negative outcomes, such as parental mental health and socioeconomic status, the effects of screen time were muted.
This definitive “technology is bad” claim has been a drum she has been beating for some time, and is a claim that she has been called out on before. Her claims about computers damaging childrens brains have been going on for years now, you can find bits on it here and here, endlessly repurposed eg here.
She has been criticized by Dr. Ben Goldacre for claiming that technology has adverse effects on the human brain, without having undertaken any research or properly evaluating available evidence. Goldacre called on her to “[formally] write up her concerns about computers damaging children’s brains”, to which she replied that he is “like the people who denied that smoking caused cancer“. In 2011, Goldacre replied that “A scientist with enduring concerns about a serious widespread risk would normally set out their concerns clearly, to other scientists, in a scientific paper”
That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the problem, if somebody has a serious claim to make, it should go through scientific publication and peer review before being presented to the media as fact, because while there is a complete lack of any actual data, it is not a scientific fact, and so publishing it under the banner of “Trust me, I’m a Neurosurgeon” is to misrepresent the claim.
How best to respond?
Dean Burnett has perhaps got the very best reply I’ve ever seen, he has published an article in which he mocks this entire sorry mess …
Do you want Britain’s most outspoken neuroscientist to highlight the dangers of a particular type of technology for your publication, but are unable to contact her? Not to worry, use this handy guide to write your own Susan Greenfield article that will be indistinguishable from the real thing
Dean then hilariously goes on the explain the template and finishes with …
You don’t really need evidence. Evidence is for bitter people who hate children. It’s fine to just make your claims with confidence. If you need to back up your claims, it’s fine to say you’ve spoken to some relevant people about this. There may even be a survey or two that will back you up. Don’t limit yourself to the scientific literature, that’s needlessly complicated. If you really need to cite some research, it’s probably sufficient to link to a study that didn’t really look at what you’re talking about but has some relevant words in the title.
If anyone criticises you over this, just ignore them.
It really is quite entertaining, you should go read it, especially if you are familiar with the on-going Greenfield saga.
“But but…”, you might stammer, “How dare Dean criticize a revered neuroscientist”. Well, not only because Greenfield’s claims have no evidence to back them, but perhaps also because Dean is himself a doctor of neuroscience … oh, and also a comedy writer and stand-up comedian, so he will not only be informative, but also entertaining.
So what comes next, perhaps Susan Greenfield will complain that satirical newspaper columns may cause huge unexpected changes to the parts of the brain that deal with humour, leaving you unable to laugh, thus you shouldn’t read Dean’s columns.
Then again, perhaps the real problem here is me … I have spent so much time reading Susan Greenfield articles that it has altered my brain.