A Daily Fail Science Special – A Perfect Formula and… Computers May Cause Autism

February 24, 2009 at 3:53 pm (Bad Science, Media) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

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.


  1. gimpy said,

    Given that people with autism are diagnosed at a young age, generally long before they can use a computer let alone write their name, Greenfield’s comment is remarkably daft and ignorant. Still it got her in the news, is there an award for the public undermining of science? If not, there should be.

  2. Dilmun said,

    It’s not just the batter-sitting-time that’s an unlimited benefit. So is the number of flips. Ruth Fairclough has observed (experimentally no doubt) that 1 flip = 1.4285714 lumps. So (assuming that the units of time are less than it takes for 1 flip – e.g. minutes) then flipping ten million times is even better than leaving it to grow old under the stairs. Is Wolverhampton going in for Wooniversity Challenge, or were they just to dim to realise that they would be a laughing stock? And has Ruth Fairclough no shame?

  3. Warhelmet said,

    Computer says no.

  4. Neuroskeptic said,

    …and with this move, any shred of credibility Greenfield may have once had expires with a pathetic sigh.

  5. Aunuce said,

    The history of Autism diagnosis far precedes the history of computers. They started diagnosing Autism in the ate 60s all though it was not all ways called that or disgusted as publicly as it is to-date. On another note there are a high number of autism diagnosis in underprivileged families families whom I would presume couldn’t afford computers. In my research it has been normally found that autism is genetically passed down but is triggered but outside or environmental influences in children or even adults that show the inability to filter out certain chemicals or, medicines in their system. Yes in some instances I am referring to vaccines but not all. [Admin edit: if you have evidence to support this assertion I would be interested to see it.] Some children whom have this genetic imperative can make it past the vaccine stage in their life with liver functioning properly but sometimes if they come to a point where they need chemo therapy or radiation treatment even it can push their body to far. There is a scientist in Chicago I plan to be interviewing next week who believes that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are related similarly to the chemical deficiencies that autism has [Admin edit: feel free to clarify this point by confirming which chemicals are “deficient in autism”.] and is working on finding the exact link which could be used to prove that autism is an actual disease [Admin edit: try googling “autism is not a disease”.], to prove to those organizations that believe its nothing more than bad parenting.

  6. British Scientist Loses Her Mind | SEO Backlinking - SEO and Online Reputation Management Blog said,

    […] reasons they thought so aren’t clear to me, but it could be her tendency to make assumptions without proper evidence, or her tendency to divide everything into dichotomies. […]

  7. The Promotion of Counterknowledge « jdc325’s Weblog said,

    […] Daily Mail are a disgrace. You can read recent Daily Fail posts on this blog here, here, here and here. Not that I’m in any way […]

  8. Prdctv Txts Mess Wth Yr Brane « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] to a piece in the Mail that drew heavily on Greenfield’s opinions, the current increase in autism could be linked to people spending time in “screen relationship… [Note: I have paraphrased Baroness Greenfield […]

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