In her book Mind Change1 (reviewed by John Cunningham in Solidarity 342), Susan Greenfield says “We may be living in an unprecedented era where an increasing number of people are ... learning a new default mind-set ... one of low grade aggression, short attention span and a reckless obsession with the here and now”. The key word in that statement is “may”!
The dangers of digital technology have become a major theme of Greenfield’s but what is less known is that this is way outside her area of expertise.
This matters because Greenfield is a “public intellectual”, one who is listened to. A prominent populariser of science, she was the first woman to give the Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1994, and actually became Director of the RI in 1998. She received a CBE for services to the public understanding of science and was made a baroness in 2001. These rewards follow a career researching factors in the development of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
As a role model for women aspiring to become scientists, she bears a responsibility to lead by example. How has she measured up?
In the last decade or so, she has become known for her theory of “mind change”, the supposed detrimental effects on brain development in young people of digital technology. She has expressed the view that social networking sites and video games could lead to dementia and autism in the young. This is a completely unrelated to her research which has focused on diseases of older age.
When the illogicality of linking increased internet use (usually in teenage years) with increased diagnoses of autism (usually around age two) was challenged, she claimed to be merely pointing to the increase in both and not really linking them at all. This reminds me of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s linking the decrease in the number of pirates with the increase in global warming. In Mind Change, she has now introduced her own definition of autism to get round the objection.
What evidence does she give for her theories?
In a New Scientist interview2 Greenfield refers to two studies that she claims support her fears about children’s brain development. Only one looks at brains (Yuan et al., 2011),3 those of a small number of young adults said to have “internet addiction.” Differences were found but there is no way of knowing if these were caused by internet use or even whether they are detrimental.
The other (Bavelier et al., 2010)4 points to both positive and negative effects of using digital technology but says nothing about changes in brain structure. Greenfield’s evidence is, to say the least, rather thin.
A more measured view comes from Choudhury and McKinney (2010)5 who refer to Socrates’ doom-laden prophecies about the new-fangled technology of writing that was becoming popular with the young 2500 years ago. He spoke of the inability of written words to “speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others.” C&M see modern fears about digital technology as not different from similar fears about other new technologies, such as the printed mass media. The difference now is that the latest “moral panic” about adolescents is dressed up in a cloak of neuroscience.
Greenfield has been criticised by other scientists for her unsubstantiated claims. Dr Ben Goldacre (of Bad Science) asked in 2011 “Why won’t Professor Susan Greenfield publish this theory in a scientific journal?”6
Psychology professor Dorothy Bishop7 pointed out in an open letter to Greenfield the illogicality of linking autism and internet use and challenged her to actually do some research. She said it was unkind to add to the burden of parents already accused of causing autism in their children. The National Autistic Society described Greenfield’s claims as “speculative” and “unhelpful”.
When Greenfield repeated her claims in Mind Change, Bishop felt impelled to write ‘Why most scientists don’t take Susan Greenfield seriously’.8 In this, she looked at Greenfield’s “500 peer-reviewed papers in support of the possible problematic effects” and found far fewer, many of which were newspaper articles or else irrelevant. Few claimed adverse effects from digital technology. The ones about brain plasticity did not mention digital technology. Bishop also looked at four papers that Greenfield gave as support for her autism hypothesis. These were at best irrelevant and at worst frankly weird (one linked autism prevalence with rainfall — because kids would stay indoors when it was raining and watch cable TV).
In New Scientist, Greenfield says “we should be planning a 3D environment for our children...instead of putting them in front of a 2D one”. Bishop asks whether we should therefore discourage book reading.
Asked why she didn’t do research in this area, Greenfield said that if someone gave her some money she would be happy to do it. But Greenfield was given some money, $2 million, by the Templeton Foundation in 2005 to fund the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind. No details are available on its activity. Greenfield says “It’s not really for Dorothy [Bishop] to comment on how I run my career.”
But scientists have a duty to look to the evidence and to look for it. As the great cosmologist and populariser of science Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Sadly, we do not seem to have any evidence at all.
1. Mind change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains. Random House, 2014
6. From his book I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that. Fourth Estate, 2014
* Perhaps the peer who reviewed them was Baroness Greenfield!