February 24, 2009 at 3:53 pm (Bad Science, Media) (Ari Sigman, Autism, Baroness Greenfield, Bebo, Ben Goldacre, Daily Fail, Daily Mail, Equation Stories, Facebook, Facebook Gives You Cancer, Formula Stories, MySpace, Newsnight, Social Networking, Susan Greenfield, Twitter)
There are two stories in the Daily Fail website today – this one gives the formula for the perfect pancake and this one gives us a “person has opinion” story. The formula story is, um, formulaic. It has to be “the perfect X”, there has to be an equation and there is, almost invariably, a problem with the equation. James Smith, in the Fail’s comment section, thinks he might have spotted it:
According to that formula, if you left the pancake batter standing for ten years, (s-e) would be large, and so the pancake would be near perfect. If you let it stand for the same time as you left the pancake to cool, (s-e) would be zero and the pancake would be infinitely bad.
For more on stupid formula stories, try Bad Science or Apathy Sketchpad: AS on the Telegraph’s formula stories; AS on the Fail’s formula stories; badscience.net/category/cash-for-stories. After I began writing this post, I spotted a Science Punk post on the pancake story: http://tinyurl.com/punk-pancakes.
Now onto the “person has opinion” story. Baroness Susan Greenfield has opinions on the impact of computers on the brain and is not shy of expressing them.
Baroness Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, is to launch an exercise programme for the brain that she claims is proven to reverse the mental decline associated with ageing […] Greenfield will launch MindFit, a PC-based software program, at the House of Lords next month, for the “worried but well” – people in their middle years who are healthy and want to stay that way. Created by researchers in Israel and already on sale in America, it offers users inter-active puzzles and tasks that are claimed to stimulate the brain just as using a gym exercises the body’s muscles […]The baroness’s decision to lend her name to MindFit and to take a significant stake in Mind-Weavers, the company promoting it, could raise eyebrows among fellow scientists. Her high profile in the media has rankled with some and she was twice snubbed by the Royal Society. The idea that the performance of the brain can be improved by exercises or potions has a long and controversial history.
This story is about social websites and Baroness Greenfield speculates about the possible effects. Greenfield makes worrying (unevidenced) claims about sites such as Facebook – speculating that they shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification, and make young people more self-centred. “Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, believes repeated exposure could effectively ‘rewire’ the brain.” This is something that Greenfield believes, but has no evidence for*. It is mere speculation and so, for the moment, I am inclined to ignore it. Greenfield also made claims for computer use other than social networking sites: “Computer games and fast-paced TV shows were also a factor, she said.” Which is interesting, given that her MindFit programme is, well, a computer game. *The only evidence I spotted in the Fail article was anecdotal: “Lady Greenfield told the Lords a teacher of 30 years had told her she had noticed a sharp decline in the ability of her pupils to understand others.” Greenfield, though, goes further in her technology-based scaremongering:
She pointed out that autistic people, who usually find it hard to communicate, were particularly comfortable using computers.
‘Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,’ she added.
Pardon? People who are autistic are comfortable using PCs, so PCs may cause autism? This (a) supposes that autism is something that is caused after infancy (as far as I know, people tend not to learn to use computers before they can crawl#); (b) as Baroness Greenfield points out, it also supposes that there genuinely is a rise in the prevalence of autism, rather than increased awareness and diagnosis; (c) it also supposes that there is some reason to believe that autism is ’caused by environment’ – that, say, watching TV or playing on the computer can by some unknown mechanism lead to autism. I think it’s daft and irresponsible of Baroness Greenfield to speculate about autism when the speculation would seem to be uninformed. She may well be “an eminent scientist”, but she is not an expert in autism and is therefore operating outside her own field. The Daily Fail referring to her as an eminent scientist appears to lend authority to her speculation on computers causing autism – but it shouldn’t. The most important thing to remember here is that no work has been done. She may be an eminent neuroscientist at Oxford University, but she hasn’t written a paper on autism or done a study on the effects of computers – she’s given a personal opinion to a journalist and nothing more.
#According to this paper: “Studies have shown that a diagnosis of autism can be reliably made at between 2 and 3 years of age” – Baird et al. I think it’s rather unlikely that children younger than two are using computers. Baird contributed to another paper. In this paper, the authors found that “Consistent failure of the three key items from the CHAT at 18 months of age carries an 83.3% risk of autism; and this pattern of risk indicator is specific to autism when compared to other forms of developmental delay.” A later paper, A screening instrument for autism at 18 months of age: a 6-year follow-up study, found that “The CHAT can be used to identify cases of autism and related pervasive developmental disorders at 18 months of age. It is emphasized that the CHAT is not a diagnostic instrument but can identify potential cases of autism spectrum disorders for a full diagnostic assessment.”
EDIT 25/2/09: Last night’s Newsnight featured a (fairly brief) debate on the dangers of Facebook. Linky (also includes a brief interview with Susan Greenfield). Hosted by Jeremy Paxman and featuring Ben Goldacre (in his best tank top) and Aric Sigman (who was the source of the Daily Fail story that Facebook causes cancer – http://tinyurl.com/fail-fbook-cancer). Goldacre covers the Facebook scaremongering on the badscience.net blog here.