Thursday, 4 August 2011
An open letter to Baroness Susan Greenfield
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.