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Professor Mark Griffiths talks sense, Baroness Greenfield doesn’t*†

*so, what else is new?
† Or, at least, she never produces any evidence for what she’s saying, and it does seem nonsensical

A couple of years ago, I was teaching a third year option on Psychology & Media, and we monitored psych stories as they appeared in the press & on TV – and online – and tried to work out where they came from and why so many seem so wrong. Well, many come from university press releases, and are usually basically OK, though they may suffer from over-simplification or over-enthusiastic headlines, like some I’ve already discussed here, but there was also a category of spurious-seeming psychology stories which run and run.

The ‘computer games are ruining our kids’ brains’ is a good example, especially in the version promoted by Baroness Susan Greenfield, who used to be an eminent neurologist, but is now widely publicised for speeches she makes at minor, usually non-scientific, functions. Essentially the same story has been coming up every six months or so for several years. Here’s this week’s version
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2049040/Computer-games-leave-children-dementia-warns-neurologist.html?ITO=1490

Headlined:
Computer games leave children with ‘dementia’ warns top neurologist!!!!!

(OK, I put the scary red bits and silly exclamation marks in myself)
Although I have great disrespect for the Daily Mail generally, what we found when tracking psychology stories in it was that they were generally quite informative and reasonably accurate, though they often had very inappropriate headlines. The problem here isn’t the Mail, it’s the talk that’s being reported (and the headline, maybe, if you read the whole article).

Eminent neurologist Baroness Susan Greenfield said yesterday that spending time online gaming and browsing internet sites such as Facebook could pose problems for millions of youngsters.

She told attendees at a Dorset conference that an unhealthy addiction to technology could disable connections in the brain, literally ‘blowing the mind.’

The ‘Dorset Conference’ was actually ‘the opening of a £2.5million science centre at Sherborne Girls’ School’ (not a state school).
The article goes on to say:

However, she did not reveal any research that had made a connection between screen technologies and brain degeneration.

To repeat and emphasise: she did not reveal any research. And she never does: I have a clip from an interview from a serious TV programme where she says there’s no evidence.
The Mail goes on to say:

Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and Directory of Nottingham Trent University’s International Gaming Research Unit, said he knew of no scientific evidence that such a link existed.

Go, Mark! To repeat and emphasise: he knew of no scientific evidence that such a link existed. That sounds like a responsible social scientist to me. Is it responsible to go on and on and on (and on) peddling a scare story for which no scientific evidence exists?
The Daily Telegraph fell for it too: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2049040/Computer-games-leave-children-dementia-warns-neurologist.html?ITO=1490 and The Sun:
http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/woman/health/health/3871474/Computer-games-are-giving-kids-dementia.html

Good grief.

Further reading: Ben Goldacre’s  take on all this http://bengoldacre.posterous.com/a-clarification-why-people-have-been-concerne

If you’re a Schools of Thought student, you could try out my ‘why do we believe this stuff?’ list on this.

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3 responses to “Professor Mark Griffiths talks sense, Baroness Greenfield doesn’t*†

  1. millerpsych October 21, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Ben Goldacre agrees with me: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/21/bad-science-publishing-claims
    (actually, it’s really me agreeing with Ben Goldacre)

  2. millerpsych October 21, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    …and Goldacre points out something Greenfield ought really to make clear whenever she gives an opinion on this: that she makes money out of “a computer game designed to train the brain”
    Quotes here from this story in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1562433/Top-neuroscientist-backs-computer-brain-game.html
    “The MindFit game, which retails at £89.99, is licensed by MindWeavers,”
    “Baroness Greenfield, who is a director of MindWeavers”

  3. Pingback: Warning: if you read this post, your hard disk will be wiped and all the sweet fluffy kittens within a two mile radius will die horribly!!!!!! « millerpsych

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