A response to the Baroness

The Independent have just published a letter I wrote to them in response to their recent opinion piece by Susan Greenfield.

She claims that computers are at risk of causing ‘mind change’ while scientists are ignoring the issue. Needless to say, I was not impressed.

I was interested to read Professor Susan Greenfield’s opinion piece “Computers may be altering or brains – we must ask how” (12 August), where she laments that other scientists are refusing to debate the issue of how the internet and computer technology are affecting the mind and brain. She also claims that other scientists are dismissing her concerns by saying “there’s no evidence”.

This is clearly nonsense. There are over 3,000 scientific studies on the effect of technology on the mind and brain and a scientific community actively engaged in this debate, all of which Greenfield chooses to ignore in favour of her own alarmist conclusions. I am sure this is not simple unawareness, because Professor Greenfield specifically invited me to present the evidence to her at a debate on this topic at the House of Lords. The transcript is available on her own website. [You can download it as a pdf]

If Professor Greenfield wishes to engage in the debate about the impact of technology she is more than welcome to join the research community and discuss the evidence behind her concerns. So far, this evidence does not suggest that children’s or anyone else’s brains are being damaged by mobile phones, email, or Facebook. We know each has its own balance of effects, positive and negative, like all other media (newspapers included).

But instead of engaging with the evidence, Greenfield uses her media profile to communicate her ill-informed concerns to the public at large. This is neither helpful to science nor to concerned parents attempting to understand how they can best help their children use technology to their benefit.

The professor clearly has good intentions, but to become genuinely helpful she needs to be aware about what we actually know about the impact of technology. I would welcome her informed contribution to the debate.

Although I won’t be holding my breath.
 

Link to Independent letters page for 18th August.

8 Comments

  1. Emmy
    Posted August 19, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    What I don’t understand is why she did not present the evidence in the article. That would have saved us all some time, would it have not?

    What I’m wondering is how the radiation effects of cell phones (and perhaps of wi fi) can be seperated from behaviroal effects. Does brain damage not cause change in behavior? And we know that pluripotent cells in young brains could perhaps be more susceptible to cancerous changes from inflammation.

    http://www.eloverkanslig.se/rapporter/Havas.pdf

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4042403.stm

  2. Mike de Fleuriot
    Posted August 19, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    The point that I agree with here, is that while people should have concerns about things, they should personally make sure that there is a fire in the cinema before shouting fire. In fact, if one holds a public position, this is what is expected from them, no matter which side of what fence they are sitting on. It’s one of the unwritten duties that are entrusted with. And we, as members of the public, have our duty to keep reminding them of this.

  3. Posted August 19, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Well, this is the first time I’ve seen Prof. Greenfield use the word hypothesis in one of her articles, or cite any studies (even if one of them is a sciam article rather than peer reviewed).

    I think that the critiques that you and other scientists (including a recent one by Uta Frith) are getting through – she’s now changing her argument by suggesting that people are stifling debate, when in fact what people were objecting to is that she talks to the media and presents her hypotheses as if they have evidence backing them up (with considerable face validity as a famous professor).

    I think the best approach for people in the psychology research community to do at this point is to invite her to make more specific and testable hypotheses, and get some grants for a PhD student or five to do the research she is calling for (I daresay that Prof Greenfield can raise a bob or two).

  4. Paul
    Posted August 19, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    I cry bull excrement to Prof. Greenfield’s so called arguments. Is she trying to justify her public employment or suffering from sudden onset neurosyphilis? Utter nonsense! Strip her of her qualifications and status. Cast her out of the House of Lords feeding trough I say!

  5. Posted August 20, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    I’m glad they printed your letter. What needs explaining is why Greenfield has in the past couple of weeks had two articles in the Daily Mail, one in the Independent and one in the Guardian. She is saying nothing different to what she said 2 years ago. Yet the media continue to give her a platform.
    As you point out, she wants other scientists to engage with her, but she doesn’t engage with those scientists who are working on the topics she talks about. Has she ever been to a conference with those working on internet impact, or published her ideas on this topic in a peer-reviewed journal?
    It is important for scientists to start being more forthright in challenging her, and to make it clear to the media why she is not taken seriously by the scientific community. She would command more respect if she behaved like an Oxford professor is supposed to, i.e. demonstrate in-depth knowledge of the relevant literature, evaluate it in a balanced fashion, and avoid sensationalisation.

  6. terry33
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    On the subject of technology and scientific evidence, what I find very frustrating is that even though children (especially young children) spend way more time watching TV/videos than they do playing video games or surfing the net, there
    have been almost no recent laboratory studies looking at the effects of watching TV on the brain.

    Back in 1971 Herbert Krugman published a study showing that a person’s brainwaves slow down while watching TV (compared to reading).

    http://books.google.com/books?id=VLh-LSg6GyAC&pg=PA143&dq=How+Advertising+Works+neuropsychological&sig=b0X_h3u7Q4vXSK5cxtuDsd4pAfM#v=onepage&q&f=false

    In 1979-1980 there were three more published studies which also found that people’s brainwaves slowed down while watching TV.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=LsMgrGcJSHMC&pg=PA99&dq=eeg+everyday&sig=9vzN-AlwIX7MwWXEZLKbdiibP_s#v=onepage&q=eeg%20everyday&f=false

    The only more recent laboratory studies that I have been able to find are:

    “Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that, when we’re engaged in intense “sensorimotor processing” – and nothing is more intense than staring at a massive screen with Dolby surround sound while wearing 3-D glasses – we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such “inactivation” allows us to lose ourself in the movie”

    http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/01/avatar.php

    And since TV is king of involuntary attention:

    “Gamma-band response was linked to voluntary shifts of attention, but not to the involuntary capture of attention. The presence of increased gamma responses for the voluntary allocation of attention, and its absence in cases of involuntary capture suggests that the neural mechanisms governing these two types of attention are different.”

    http://www.jneurosci.org/content/27/44/11986.abstract

    EEG equipment and computers are way more advanced than they were in 1980. I think it would be an important study to look at the effects of watching TV on brainwaves and then publishing the results.

    For anyone with access to an EEG machine, this is a simple experiment to do. Just 10 minutes of TV watching compared to 10 minutes of other activities.

    I did the experiment myself and found that overall brainwaves do slow down while watching TV compared to reading, drawing, playing a math game, playing guitar. Namely the Gamma brainwaves almost completely disappear while watching TV, but are active while engaging in other activities (especially drawing and playing guitar).

    Here are the results, where I compare TV watching with reading and drawing:

    http://www.tvsmarter.com/documents/brainwaves2.html

    —–

  7. Steve Merrick
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I’m afraid I DON’T think the professor’s intentions are good. She’s used this ploy quite a few times now, to panic and bulldoze members of the public into accepting her views on the matter in hand. This kind of manipulative propaganda is unforgivable from a prominent representative of science. :-(

  8. Posted September 3, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Vaughan,

    I’m utterly amazed that a person of your insight would continue to insist that Dr. Geenfield has good intentions. She was forcibly removed from her most recent appointment for attempting to bankrupt the organization. Call a spade a spade Vaughan– I KNOW you are not that naive.


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