Thursday, 4 August 2011

An open letter to Baroness Susan Greenfield


©CartoonStock.com
As a contemporary of yours, I have followed your career with interest over the years. I was delighted when in 1994 you were selected to give the Royal Institution Christmas lectures - the first woman ever to be so honoured. The lectures were fun and informative and delivered with enthusiasm and charisma. Since then, however, I’ve been dismayed by the way in which your public communications have moved increasingly away from science. You are frequently invited to give your opinion on topical matters, because of your status as a ‘top neuroscientist’. This leads people to assume that what you say is grounded in evidence. You have a splendid opportunity to act as an ambassador for science, but you don’t seem interested in doing that. Instead, we are increasingly treated to opinions without the evidence to support them.
I would just shake my head sadly at this lost opportunity, except that in recent years your speculations have wandered onto my turf and it's starting to get irritating. In the New Scientist this week, you mention the rise in autism as evidence for your concerns about the impact of the internet on children’s brains. Previously I’ve read that you've made similar comments about ADHD. You may not realise just how much illogical garbage and ill-formed speculation parents of children with these conditions are exposed to. Over the years, they’ve been told that their children’s problems are caused by their cold style of interaction, inoculations, dental amalgams, faulty diets, allergies, drinking in pregnancy - the list is endless. Now we can add to this list internet use. Except that here, at least, parents will be able to detect the flaw in the logic. A cause has to precede its effect. This test of causality fails in two regards. First, demographically - the rise in autism diagnoses occurred well before internet use became widespread. Second, in individuals: autism is typically evident by 2 years of age, long before children become avid users of Twitter or Facebook. You also seem unaware of the large literature discussing possible causes of the increase in autism diagnoses, most of which concludes that most, if not all, of the increase is down to changes in diagnostic criteria, (see e.g. Fombonne et al., 2005).
I wish you would focus on communicating about your areas of expertise - there’s plenty of public interest in neurodegenerative diseases, and I’m sure you could do a great job explaining this topic to a broad audience. Or  you could give up the work on neurodegenerative diseases and devote your time doing research to follow up your hunches about effects of internet use, which I agree is an interesting topic. But please, please, stop talking about autism.

Update November 2014
If I had hoped this open letter might persuade Susan Greenfield to stop talking about autism, I was wrong. Three years on, she is claiming there is evidence to support her assertion of a link between internet use and autistic spectrum disorder. For a look at the 'evidence' and a detailed critique of her claims, please see this blogpost.

27 comments:

  1. Hear, hear! I simply could not agree more, thank you very much for this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well stated. We need to be rigorous in cases like this for the reputation of psychology as a whole which is more important than fame or hunches

    ReplyDelete
  3. The autism claim certain raised a few eyebrows when I filed this piece. I've published the full audio from my interview with Greenfield here: http://scienceblogs.com/sciencepunk/2011/07/interview_susan_greenfield_on.php

    ReplyDelete
  4. Not necessarily causation but an 'interesting' association in this case study (n=1) by Genuis (2010) of coeliac disease and autism:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19564647
    As to allergies (not necessarily IgE-mediated), I believe there are also some emerging themes:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19343198
    Illogical garbage and ill-informed speculation?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Regrettably, my previous comment seems to have been swallowed as I tried to select an identity. I couldn't agree more, and wrote an open letter to Greenfield myself, some time ago, essentially saying that she should either do some actual research into the claims she is making, or she should stop making them. It's an irresponsible and disappointing abuse of her position as a "top neuroscientist" to make these claims with no basis, because she knows that she won't be questioned due to her position and her prominence in the field.

    I lost my patience with her some time ago. http://www.zenbuffy.com/2010/12/susan-greenfield-i-h8-u/

    ReplyDelete
  6. I read articles about autism with great interest but these so called experts can say what they like,spend a day with my adorable nephew and then you would want to tear the rule book up!Yes he exhibits some classic signs but in other ways he is as normal as any 10 year old, hes not a subject to be studied and labelled, hes a young boy adored by his family,he may not have speech but noone has any problems understanding his needs and despite a so called expert telling his Mum he couldn't express Love he does so every single day, seeing him Hug his Dad when he comes in after a long shift as a Policeman would meet the most hardened scientists heart!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Indeed, this irritated me into a lengthy rant as well!
    http://noodlemaz.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/interacting-on-the-interweb/

    ReplyDelete
  8. It is, obviously, nonsense to associate ADHD and Autism with internet and social media use. It's essentially the same old fuddy duddy attitude that sees parents shaking their heads at their children's taste in clothes and music.

    As for ADHD and Autism, there have been a few interesting scientific papers implicating iron deficiency in both disorders and speaking from personal experience, I think that this is likely to be a particularly fruitful avenue of future research, i.e. anything but monitoring internet use.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Agreed 100%. The Greenfield article the other day claimed she was making no value judgements. The whole thing was riddled with negative value judgement with little or no reference to evidence.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It is sad to see her court publicity with such inanity. She has form on the internet-autism nonsense, I wrote about her notions on this 2 years ago

    ReplyDelete
  11. I heard her speak a few months ago and she was maintaining that watching a film was an inherently more creative activity than playing computer games - truly unimpressive cliched stuff again based on not very much

    ReplyDelete
  12. This post is spot on. There's no doubt this sort of thing generates unjustified anxiety among parents/readers generally. I'm always wary when things are described as being on the increase. of course, more cases of autism are diagnosed these days but that doesn't mean they weren't there previously. Ditto ADHD.

    ReplyDelete
  13. There was a brilliant parody of Susan Greenfield in The Lay Scientist recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2011/aug/01/1):

    'Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have left a generation of young adults vulnerable to degeneration of the brain, we can exclusively reveal for about the fifth time. Symptoms include self-obsession, short attention spans and a childlike desire for constant feedback, according to a ‘top scientist’ with no record of published research on the issue…

    The scientist believes that use of the internet – and computer games – could ‘rewire’ the brain, causing neurons to establish new connections and pathways. “Rewiring itself is something that the brain does naturally all the time,” the professor said, “but the phrase ‘rewiring the brain’ sounds really dramatic and chilling, so I like to use it to make it seem like I’m talking about a profound and unnatural change, even though it isn’t.”…

    “I think it’s really important that people aren’t frightened by scare stories about new technology, and I’ve been a big supporter of brain-training software in the past,” the scientist said, “but people’s brains are literally melting inside their heads from all the MyFace waves being absorbed.”'

    ReplyDelete
  14. Frank Swain's insightful video of his interview with Susan Greenfield reminded me of the frequent ironic allusions in late 19th/early 20th century children's literature about the dangers of children reading. Ruins the eyesight, gives children fancy ideas and distracts them from their chores.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Her film vs computer games perspective on creativity is particularly distressing as she also has attempted to colonize space in futures studies (yes, it *IS* an academic field), but doesn't seem to understand the basic idea that when exploring possible impact cascades forward into the future, you need to be careful not to judge those impacts with an unexamined value set: the personal is not temporally universal. Past, current and future generations see the world differently, engage with the world differently, value different experiences differently. She's got a bit of a bee in her bonnet re: computer games. Also see Wordspy for the definition of the word "juvenoia", which she seems to be exhibiting.

    ReplyDelete
  16. It is quite clear that the paper, Bavelier, D., Green, C.S. & Dye, W.G. (2010). Children, wired: For better and for worse. Neuron, 67, 692-701. article
    that Greenfield cites as "evidence" says something very different to Greenfield's suppositions. Not really what a scientist should be saying. lets hope this year's Christmas Lecturer is a bit more credible.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Be careful of that Bavelier Neuron paper, though - Daphne Bavelier is also guilty of using some misleading wording to describe her own findings of beneficial training effects following playing action computer games (eg first person shooters). They've found that that training improvements transfer to certain aspects of speeded visual attention (eg useful field of view) but not much else, and they've looked pretty hard.
    Boot, W,R, Kramer, A.F., Simons, D.J. Fabiani, M and Gratton, G
    The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychologica 129 (3) 387-398

    ReplyDelete
  18. Meme- agree.

    She is banana head.

    We are still going to take out TOM. It's so challenging, and it's there.

    :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. As a psychologist working in the NHS I often come across people diagnosed with 'autism' or aspergers' who do not have this condition but who have a developmental history of interpersonal deprivation that causes them to display a number of the key symptoms used to identify the aforementioned conditions. To me, it is understandable that connections with them and excessive internet use that reduces interpersonal interaction might be made. The real issue for me is the highly suspect validity of the diagnoses for many labelled with these conditions. Clinicians and experts in the field of autism/aspergers need to get their own house in order before critising reasonable speculation. Advances in science nearly always come with ideas/theories first and then a process of experimental investigation to substatiate or refute them. The professionally secure response would be to investigate this woman's ideas rather than try to suppress her views and deny her the right to express them. As much as there may currently be no evidence to support the view that there IS a connection between excessive internet usage and autism/aspergers, there is also no evidence for the contrary view that there IS NOT.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is about the BEST post on this whole page.
      Why are people so frightened by her "scaremongering" ?

      Delete
  20. I point to your post and I point to a massive round of applause. That's all

    ReplyDelete
  21. @ Anonymous: Just as a matter of interest, how would you discriminate between someone who 'really' had autism or aspergers and someone who had a developmental history of interpersonal deprivation?

    ReplyDelete
  22. also @anonymous the fact autism is diagnosed at 2-3 before any enthusiastic internet use, and the fact the autism boom occured previous to social networking crazes would poignantly suggest the two are unrelated. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder - it is not acquired. A "normal child" does not suddenly become autistic. Internet use may prompt psychological changes, but these are not autism. As Dr Bishop says, leave autism alone, it is not a synonym for lack of empathy. Until writing on someone's facebook wall becomes rewriting the genome of gametes,the internet cannot cause autism. If Greenfield would like to produce a study on the above then she is welcome, nay encouraged!

    ReplyDelete
  23. @doctorsunshine: Care needs to be exercised in making any assumptions about autism. Autism is a set of behavioural signs. We don't know whether those behavioural signs constitute 'a' disorder or not - unless you are using the term 'disorder' to mean the signs themselves.

    And we can't say for certainty that autism is not acquired. Gillberg & Coleman (Biology of the autistic syndromes, 1992) list 60 medical conditions documented as being associated with a diagnosis of autism. The conditions include viral and bacterial infections as well as brain damage. We don't know whether those acquired conditions were a direct cause of the autism or not, but that remains a possibility until it's conclusively ruled out.

    What we do know, is that in cases where autism has emerged in conjunction with a documented medical condition such as an infection, trauma or chromosomal abnormality, the autism will be most likely to be attributed to the medical condition, rather than to a neurodevelopmental disorder per se. But just because in other cases of autism there is no record of an associated medical factor like an infection or trauma, doesn't mean that such a factor isn't involved.

    ReplyDelete