Anti-social networking

An interview with Susan Greenfield

When one of Britain’s highest-profile scientists gives a speech in the House of Lords berating our culture for sleepwalking into an Internet-fuelled social apocalypse, it really does tick all the boxes for inciting a media storm. That is just what Susan Greenfield whipped up when she gave a speech outlining worries about how the growing prevalence of social networking websites could be altering children’s brains.

The press appraisal was appropriately shrill and hysterical—The Daily Mail and even the BBC went so far as to wonder whether using Facebook might increase your risk of cancer. Greenfield’s speech to the Lords mentions nothing of the sort, but it does contain its fair share of rash claims; I got in touch with her to get to the bottom of what she’d said, what she’d meant, and what was pure media spin.

I started by asking Susan whether Facebook could be altering our personalities. ‘Well, what I’m saying is that we know the environment alters the brain, and so if the environment changes and we spend more time in two dimensions, the brain will change too.’ So far, so incontrovertible. ‘We also know that there is an increase in autism, and there has been a three-fold increase in prescriptions for Ritalin [a drug prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD] in the last ten years.’

Susan told the Lords that ‘real-life conversations…require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps pheromones…. None of these skills are required chatting on a social networking site.’ Interacting via the sterile Internet, Susan tells me, ‘levels the playing field, as it were’, allowing everyone—from the life and soul of the party to the socially awkward—a little longer to think up a witty comeback.

This is certainly a plausible reason why people with autism might feel more comfortable online, but I put it to her that it might be rash to point the arrow of causation the other way. Indeed, most autistic children can be diagnosed by the age of three, well before they can read, let alone use a social networking site. ‘Children do use the screen before they’re three,’ she counters, and further she argues that computers ‘may then go on to make already-existing tendencies worse.’

In fact, the reverse is possibly true: this comfort in an online environment has been explored (in a published paper) as a vehicle to deploy possible therapies for children with autism. Susan retreats slightly; ‘I’m not saying that because autistic people are comfortable, you’re going to be autistic if you use the screen, of course not, but I’m saying the kinds of activities and the types of issues that are at stake are perhaps similar.’

This all sounds rather different to many of the stories as they appeared in the media, and Susan is quick to distance herself from them: ‘I never took any of this to the media…I can’t help what the media does with what I say.’ She seems quite offended when I ask if someone in her position should moderate what they say to avoid a rash of sensationalism in the press.

However, further examination of her House of Lords speech finds some pretty sensational claims to pore over. ‘What might actually be in jeopardy?’ she asked, likening social networking websites to ‘drug addiction’, comparing conversation with ‘killing, skinning and butchering an animal’, and, of course, the references to autism, which seems to have dominated both the press coverage and indeed our conversation.

Autism, I suggest, is an emotionally-loaded word: one only need look at anti-vaccination campaigners continuing to shout down a decade of evidence proving that MMR has no link to the condition to see that it is a topic capable of stirring passion. Susan disagrees: ‘Autism is not an emotive word, it’s a medical term.’

Talking to her did make me feel a little more sympathetic towards her plight, angry with a baying media for their rich over-extrapolation. I’m not sure the evidence supports my empathy, however; the moderate conclusions she presented to me stand in stark contrast to the gems Greenfield offers a less sceptical interviewer.

A recent interview with The Daily Telegraph treated her to a soapbox, and waste the opportunity she did not: ‘We are rearing a generation of kids that are in danger of becoming emotionally stunted, inarticulate hedonists with the attention span of a gnat,’ she told the paper. Evidence was not advanced, though a technical defence might be that this is not hard science, as we are merely ‘in danger’ of it happening.

There’s more: ‘A lot of youngsters who saw [the Twin Towers fall] on television thought it as [sic] a game in which the towers would just rise up from the dust, whole again. It really is that frightening.’ I’d go with terrifying: but no evidence was suggested which might support the sweeping conclusion that there might be some association between the number of times you’ve seen your teammates respawn in the latest first-person shooter, and a stunting of your ability to empathise with real-life mortality.

She continues: ‘By living out their relationships on screen, they never learn to read body language, to pick up on tone of voice. They find it impossible to establish rapport. And when they are forced into the real world they possess none of these skills.’ Again, no evidence: and this time there’s not a cautious ‘in danger’ to be seen.

It is hard not to conclude that Baroness Greenfield is abusing her position as a media darling. It is particularly galling coming from a self-styled queen of public engagement—someone who should be an ambassador for what scientists do. She doesn’t always volunteer the caveats in her suggestive statements, but tersely acknowledges their obviousness when pressed. I feel sure that if the Telegraph journalist had bothered to ask, she would have brushed her off as explicitly as she did BBC’s Newsnight, whom she told simply that ‘there is no evidence’ for her concerns.

Articles about Greenfield typically open with a nod to her short skirts and lipstick. She is antithetical to the media caricature of mad-haired, white-coated, bespectacled scientists, and therefore she is unusually empowered to command the spotlight. In a world where journalists are more used to assessing the credentials of a source than the science they peddle, words from The Right Honourable Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield CBE, head of the Royal Institution, are echoed (and amplified) far and wide. She surely does have a duty to take more care: to butcher a popular adage, freedom of speech does not extend to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre—nor shouting ‘autism’ on a crowded Facebook.

Comments

  1. Clym says (18:51 22/05/2009)

    Thank you! I've found many of Dr Greenfield's well-trailed announcements worryingly short of caveats, and worryingly long on speculation. I assume she didn't get to her eminent position by publishing raw thoughts unalloyed with data in Nature; it seems odd that now she has achieved prominence, the understanding of scientific method which she must have she does not apply to many of her more public statements. I can't believe it's naivete either, given that you saw in her a recognition that some of her comments are taken by the media at face value and then over-dramatised...

    Sorry, no time to edit that down into a more readable form, but I don't often read your blog and shout agreement at the screen, so I thought I'd leave a comment!

  2. Gardner Campbell says (21:19 26/05/2009)

    I too thank you for this patient and persuasive analysis. Greenfield's media campaign is worse than junk science, in my view, because it so ably manipulates a cult of personality that's sexed-up in every sense of the word, as well as the understandable concerns and fears of parents trying to raise children in a complex and rapidly changing world.

    One word comes to mind, inspired by all I've read of Greenfield's pronouncements in this area: shame!

  3. Tim Maciel says (03:38 11/05/2013)

    I hope you are starting to realise tha she is right. Autism.

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