Will Facebook destroy your brain?

According to this story here in the UK’s Daily Mail, Facebook and Twitter have created a generation obsessed with themselves, who have short attention spans and a childlike desire for constant feedback on their lives. It then carries on to explain that

Baroness Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, believes the growth of internet ‘friendships’ – as well as greater use of computer games – could effectively ‘rewire’ the brain.”

This of course is not only not a new claim, but also has zero evidence. What we have here is an argument from authority, and not a journalistic write-up from some study … let me repeat, just to be sure you get it …

there is no evidence that supports this.

We have seen this claim before,  here in Feb 2009, and then here in Sept 2010, and then here yesterday,  and also here a few days ago… and yes  here back in Apr 2009 … all are just the opinion of Baroness Greenfield, all are in the Daily Mail, and all have zero evidence.

Now for a bit of fun. Many, including Martin Robbins, the Guardian’s Science correspondent, have debunked this over and over and over, yet it keeps popping up. So in his latest piece on this he writes (with tongue in cheek) …

In a controversial move, popular science journal The Daily Mail published the academic’s findings before they had actually been found. “In academia I’ve faced a great deal of prejudice from peers,” she explained, “They say ‘oh you haven’t done the research, you’ve not got any evidence,’ but really they’re just jealous of my fashion sense. Publishing in the Mail lets me rise above all the petty politics and fact-checking in science, and just say ‘this is the truth, bitches’.”

Responding to criticism from the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre, she said “he thinks his hair’s better than mine. It isn’t. I don’t even think it’s real. Who is he anyway? Is he a ‘top scientist’? No.”

(As you can tell, I’ve lost the will to take these stories seriously anymore.)

You can read it all here. Its fun, and only a bloke working for one of the few UK papers not owned by a bond villain could be permitted to do it.

OK, I cannot just leave the claim hanging like that, so lets take a closer look.

These stories arise from a string of lectures, public meetings, pronouncements, and articles in the popular press, generated by Baroness Greenfield 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.

So in essence she claims that computers are bad for you … Oh but wait, is this not the same Baroness Greenfield who endorsed a computer games product called MindFit, which was supposed to keep you clever, until “Which”, the UK’s consumer investigation magazine, investigated and found the claims not to be true.

Anyway, back on topic, a detailed debunking has been already done long ago

So it is no surprise that when faced with the same old silly claims yet again, the only response by many is to simply face-palm. However, perhaps the best comment on all this comes from Ben Goldacre who wrote back in 2010 (here)

If you believe that computers – which are widespread – pose a serious environmental hazard to children, then you have a responsibility to your peers and most importantly the public to present your theory clearly and formally in an academic journal, so your scientific peers can assess it.

Baroness Greenfield’s response to my concerns, and my suggestion that she should write up her concerns about computers damaging childrens’ brains formally, has been to say that I am like the people who denied that smoking caused cancer. I think that’s just offensive, I’m afraid, and I’d be happy to debate her sensibly and publicly at her convenience.

Alas … here we are again one year later, and it is the same old scare mongering popping up in the Daily Mail … <insert face-palm here>

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