Dumb Science: Twit-tering away

There is a major issue facing our society. It is so important, so unprecedented, that it rivals climate change. So said Baroness Susan Greenfield, Oxford’s Fullerian professor of physiology, the chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, and previously director of the Royal Institution. With such accolades, you would implicitly trust what she has to say on matters scientific.

This issue is ‘mind change’. New technologies such as the internet are rewiring our brains in a way that may be contributing to the increased prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. Apparently we are tweeting ourselves towards mental illness.

Professor Greenfield just provides a good story – not good evidence

The problem with this theory, as pointed out by Oxford neuropsychology professor Dorothy Bishop, is that it completely lacks evidence. In a scathing open letter she found a crucial error in Prof. Greenfield’s abovementioned assertion in New Scientist; that autism is evident by two years of age, when few toddlers can read, let alone tweet. In fact the rise in autism probably has far more to do with changes in diagnostic criteria.

In response to these charges, Prof. Greenfield responded in The Guardian stating: “I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That’s all.” The absurdity of this statement has been mercilessly mocked by science writer Carl Zimmer and others on twitter under the hashtag #greenfieldism.

Some of my favourites include: “I point to the rise of Rebecca Black and the Greek sovereign debt crisis, that is all. #greenfieldism” and also “I point to the increase in pointing and I point to the people pointing. That’s all #greenfieldism”. Perhaps the most pertinent of all reads: “I’m autistic, so I don’t point at anything. That is all #greenfieldism”.

Yet no newspaper would publish an article whose headline was: “Autism is a highly heterogeneous genetic condition caused by the complex interplay between multiple genes and the environment, experts agree”. Instead The Daily Mail gleefully proclaims: “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist”.

Thus, while Prof Greenfield’s controversial claims have propelled her to the status of celebrity science, Prof Bishop’s reasoned and intelligent criticisms remain lost in the blogosphere.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Unfortunately however, to publish an article in a newspaper you do not need good evidence, you just need a good story, and suggesting that twitter causes autism is a damn good story.