Autism and the Internet, Drugs, Television, Rain, the Victorian Era & the Media

New Scientists Who Don't Do Science

Every so often, actually with disturbing frequency, claims about the underlying cause of autism spring up like fungii in manure after a rain. It's practically required that claims of this genre be built on false premises or make invalid conclusions, like this week's link between internet use and autism. Oxford personality Baroness Susan Greenfield breathed life into this rumor in an interview with New Scientist, then defended herself by saying provocatively: "I point to an increase in the internet and I point to autism, that's all." But where's the evidence, and why is this stuff being published?

Greenfield's been popularizing science for decades, and recently popularizing science at the cost of science itself. In 2008 she warned the children's brains were being destroyed by technology in a book reviewed by the Times of UK:

"As it happens, her new book, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, digresses all over the place in little flash floods of maddening provisos and second thoughts. It's as if she dictated it while bouncing on a trampoline, fixing an errant eyelash and sorting her fraught schedule on a BlackBerry."

Back in 2009, before the UK's Royal Institution fired Lady Greenfield, she argued that the total immersion in "screen technologies" was linked to a "three-fold increase in prescriptions for methylphenidate" (prescribed for attention deficit disorder). She told the paper that people were losing empathy and becoming dependent on "sanitized" screen dialogues. She also complained that packages of meat in supermarkets had replaced "killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat".

It's hard to criticize people who distort science without seeming to deride all science popularizes. Greenfield falls in the former camp as many people recognize. 254 people commented, on a recent Guardian article saying that the internet changes peoples brain:

  • "That's exactly what my mum said about reading 'The Beano' [A British Comic Strip]."

  • "I hear it gives you cancer as well""

Guardian readers know how to take a piss, but Oxford's Greenfield knows how to get publicity, so she's long engaged in trying to scare people about technology. To her latest, scientists online responded briskly, with vitriol, meaning that in terms of popularity, Greenfield had a field day. We've been following false arguments about autism for a few years, so we wanted to look more closely at how Greenfield's latest claim about the internet causing autism differs from the claim that some economist's claim that television caused autism, which we covered back in 2006. For one, back in 2006 they actual did research -- well, economics research.

But Who Needs To Do Research When They'll Print the Stuff You Make Up?

Greenfield ups the ante from her general technophobia of two years ago by appealing not just to fuddy-duddy technophobes but to all parents and their worst nightmares. One day the child seems fine, then something mysterious happens and the child is no longer themselves. What happened? Doctors and scientists have no clinically actionable idea. Greenfield knows.

Perhaps it makes life easier for some autism suffering families to attribute changes in their child to some outside agent. It's also common to say that a crime has been perpetrated by people from another state or town or country. We've seen autism blamed on vaccines, television, rain...Uncomplicated agents that can be controlled by parents are especially attractive - TV. But where's the evidence? When the New Scientist asked that, Greenfield replied:

"There's lots of evidence, for example, the recent paper "Microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder" in the journal PLoS One...There is an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders. There are issues with happy-slapping, the rise in the appeal of Twitter - I think these show that people's attitude to each other and themselves is changing."

How nimbly she links computer use, with "internet addiction disorder" (IAD) that is not recognized by US psychiatrists, with brain change, with behaviors, and even with attitudes. But the paper didn't say anything about attitudes; didn't prove "addiction", didn't prove detrimental brain changes, didn't prove behavior changes.

Can You Compare the Cognition of Chinese 19 Year Olds Playing Games 12 Hours A Day To 1 Year Old Cooing Babies?

The PLoS One paper deserves more comment than I'm going to devote here. But though PLoS One depends on the community for peer review, and although this paper has over 11,000 views (14/08/11), not one person has peer-reviewed, or "rated" - the paper. Nevertheless, it's cited all over the internet as proof that "internet use" does bad stuff to the brain, it "shrinks it", "wrinkles it", "damages", "contracts", "re-wires" it... But the paper is not about "internet use". It's about on-line gaming.

The PLoS One authors write that the research is particularly important to China because unlike in the US, in China, IAD is recognized and often cited as a big problem. The Chinese vigorously treat the "disorder" with strict treatment regimens including until 2009 shock therapy.

The PLoS One authors used addiction criteria (i.e. "do you feel satisfied with Internet use if you increase your amount of online time?") and asked the subjects to estimate how long they had had the addiction. They then used brain imaging to show that brain changes correlated with self-reported duration of online game playing. There were 18 subjects, 12 males average age 19.5 years, and presumably 6 others (females?) who the authors do not characterize.

The subjects played online games 8-13 hours a day. I can't evaluate the data, I don't know enough about voxel based morphology. But I'm not surprised someone "playing online games" 8-13 hours a day, 6.5 days a week for 3 years is different than the controls, who were "on the internet" less than 2 hours a day. Likewise, I would expect a soldier engaged in street patrol in Afghanistan 10 hours a day, 6 days a week for three years to be different than someone who walked their dog around the block in sunny suburbia 3 days a week for the last month. (If I were in a joking mood I'd say that kids playing online games 13 hours a day 6 days a week must have extraordinary abilities to actually still be in college.)

Even if you believe in IAD, the authors acknowledge the study's limitations. They say they don't prove IAD caused changes; don't prove that the subjects brains weren't different to begin with; acknowledge the "IAD duration" measurements (self-assessment) are crude; and the data aren't rigorous to conclude negative changes.

None of these caveats slowed Greenfield, who cited this paper and linked it to all sorts of unrelated things like "Happy-slapping", an awful British fad. But there's nothing inherently sinister about using Twitter, or the internet - it's not related to autism. What makes a lot of her assertions puzzling is that Greenfield trained as a neuroscientist. Does she not know this stuff? In 2003, she mocked people who attributed anything to "scary technology." So why is she now popularizing the opposite message? Her PLoS One example is nothing more than pulling some study out of thin air and linking it to her own machinations about technology. Claims such as hers provide ripe fodder for quacks, crazies and zealotry.

How Does Technology Change Us? Research Shows Beneficial Effects in Online Gamers

Here's the second instance of "proof" Greenfield gives in the New Scientist interview, and note that again cites an academic paper and links it incongruously to her own made up stuff. She says:

"...A recent review by the cognitive scientist Daphne Bavelier in the high-impact journal Neuron1, in which she says that this is a given, the brain will change. She also reviews evidence showing there's a change in violence, distraction and addiction in children."

But the Bavelier et al review says something different. The scientists specifically warn that no research predictably links brain changes to behavior like violence, distraction or "internet addiction" to technology - TV, video games. The authors cite studies showing the research remains too confounding, as they say in their conclusions:

  • "the interpretation of these studies is not as straightforward as it appears at first glance"

  • most reports tabulate total hours rather than the more important content type, therefore are "inherently noisy and thus provide unreliable data."

  • technology use is "highly correlated with other factors that are strong predictors of poor behavioral outcomes, making it difficult to disentangle the true causes of the observations"

  • Perhaps "children who have attentional problems may very well be attracted to technology because of the constant variety of activities."

Bavelier et al stress that the effects are unpredictable, for instance "good technology" like the once ballyhooed Baby Einstein videos can turn out to have zero or negative effects. Conversely what is assumed to be "bad technology" can be good. They write:

"action video games, where avatars run about elaborate landscapes while eliminating enemies with well-placed shots, are often thought of as rather mindless by parents. However, a burgeoning literature indicates that playing action video games is associated with a number of enhancements in vision, attention, cognition, and motor control."

This point from Bavelier et al is quite interesting because it appears to contradict the general conclusions of the PLoS One authors we cited above concerning online gamers -- assuming the study subjects played comparable games. Exploring these different results is potentially more interesting than a rhetorical sleight of hand tossing a science study citation in to falsely bolster gobbledygook.

To wit, the studies Greenfield uses don't support her points. That technology's effects are still unpredictable is widely acknowledged. Greenfield herself used to promote a computer program called MindFit which claimed to improve mental ability. The game didn't work. But it also didn't make kids pick up knives and murder each other. It's hard to understand Greenfield's motivation for denouncing technology as anything other than provocation.

Greenfield says: "It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations." But "hard to see" isn't science. A "brain", is not a "mind", nor is it "behavior", nor an "attitude". That's not to say brains don't change, or that technology couldn't affect us. Brains show changes during many activities, often temporarily. It's just to say that technology is not inherently, as she called it, "chilling".

I Point to Television and I Point to Picnics, To Family Dinners, To Teens Doing Charity, To Children Building Sand Castles on Sunny Days

As she is now vilifying the internet as a physiological change agent, Greenfield previously claimed that television changes the brain deleteriously. Now she dismisses the notion. When New Scientist asked her: "What makes social networks and computer games any different from previous technologies and the fears they aroused?" she responded:

"The fact that people are spending most of their waking hours using them. When I was a kid, television was the centre of the home, rather like the Victorian piano was. It's a very different use of a television, when you're sitting around and enjoying it with others..."

Nice image, the innocent television, like the innocent Victorian piano. Happy family times of the Victorian Era, singing around the piano, food aplenty, spirits flowing, enlightened, goal oriented well adjusted children unhindered by repressive social situations. Oh wait, it wasn't always like that? We learn more about the good 'ole days by venturing dangerously out on the internet where you can find the following first hand accounts:

Isabella Read, 12 years old, coal-bearer, as told to Ashley's Mines Commission, 1842: "Works on mother's account, as father has been dead two years. Mother bides at home, she is troubled with bad breath, and is sair weak in her body from early labour. coaltub.jif "I am wrought with sister and brother, it is very sore work; cannot say how many rakes or journeys I make from pit's bottom to wall face and back, thinks about 30 or 25 on the average; the distance varies from 100 to 250 fathom. I carry about 1 cwt. and a quarter on my back; have to stoop much and creep through water, which is frequently up to the calves of my legs."

Sarah Gooder, 8 years old, trapper, as told to Ashley's Mines Commission, 1842: "I'm a trapper in the Gawber pit. It does not tire me, but I have to trap without a light and I'm scared. I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past. I never go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then. I don't like being in the pit. I am very sleepy when I go sometimes in the morning."

Greenfield's current glorification of TV defies the fact that TV has been roundly implicated for causing all sorts of unsocial behavior and not only by Greenfield before she changed her mind.

The Autism TV Link: "Why Not Tie it To Carrying Umbrellas?"

In 2006 Acronym Required used a study by economists linking autism and television to write a satirical ten step tutorial on how to publish bad science and get lots of media attention for it. The authors proved that a theories popularity, if brought to the attention of a non-critical media was independent of clearly stating no link between autism and television in your study. You didn't even need to be a scientist.

After reviewing those economists' work, Joseph Piven, director of the Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center at the University of North Carolina, weighed in on the autism television-watching idea, asking the Wall Street Journal "[W]hy not tie it to carrying umbrellas?" And so the researchers did! And in 2009, in "It's Back! The Rain Theory of Autism", we described how the same researcher group that blamed autism on televisions decided that it wasn't television causing autism, but rain.

The nice thing about making up "science" or just leveraging your status for narcissistic purposes, is that you can change, chameleon-like, at will. If your aim is to generate a headline in mainstream media rather than research, it doesn't matter what the science says. Most people don't remember headlines from one day to the next and they aren't that curious to dig further.

I believe a natural response to Greenfield's wild claims is humor and sarcasm, the same response the Guardian readers had. To Greenfield's latest foray, Carl Zimmer started an amusing twitter exchange with this: "I point to the increase in esophageal cancer and I point to The Brady Bunch. That's all. #greenfieldism".

A string of #greenfieldisms followed, like "@carlzimmer I point to Alzheimer's and I point to cheese doodles. That's all. #greenfieldism". (Of course this territory is risk ridden, because of the prevalence of actual real random "studies" like the one about mice who eat fast food and get Alzheimer's.)

When challenged, Greenfield didn't back down, instead she spewed forth with more analogies, like a clogged toilet if test-flushed. Asked for a response to the fact that there's not evidence claiming detrimental effects of technologies, she scoffed that you wouldn't see effects for 20 years. With just as absurd a distracting non-sequiter she once asked someone who challenged her on the technology-is-bad assertions if they denied smoking causes cancer.

Flexible "Theories" Make For Good Publicity for Scientists, For Newspapers...

I think it's cathartic, funny and educational to diffuse Greenfield's claims with humor. Wicked-fast coordinated Twitter de-bunking of such people is of course useful and could be made even more useful. Unfortunately the issues aren't always as simple as a Greenfieldism. And debunking the rhetoric of individuals seeking publicity on the backs of science is only one angle.

I think it's important to note that it wouldn't be news if there weren't ready and willing news outlets. The New Scientist printed all her assertions about links between technology, brain structure, autism, and behavior. BabiesLaptop.jpg They didn't ask questions. They didn't challenge. They didn't say: wait, isn't autism diagnosed at ages 2-4? Who's propping their 6 month old up in from on the computer to play war games? Why?

The Guardian, like most papers, publishes articles that range in quality. A Guardian comment on the 2009 article about Greenfield's theories, that called the article "absolute nonsense", and wrote I am surprised that the Guardian has published this..."sloppy journalism"..."absolute drivel", pulled in 160 "approve" votes, far more than any other comments. So even if readers hate the article, they'll still read it. Media succeeds because of advertising and hundreds of comments translates to how many hundreds of thousand of hits?

The media is quite capable of selective coverage. They ignore important scientific, political, and economic stories that they consider politically sensitive. But is anti-science coverage ever "censored"? Not if it can drive traffic, and sell ads - provide economic benefit to media outlets.

But to what extent can we accept this concession to the market if it gives us in return uncritical readers, uncritical patients, and uncritical citizens? Does it create an atmosphere amenable to medical quacks? Might it prime a population to be more receptive to political efforts to curb real free speech via social media technologies? Too bad so many potential critics (even bloggers) are involved with or depend on mainstream news outlets, which makes them understandably hesitant to bite the hand that feeds (or might feed) them.


1 Bavelier, D., Green, C.S., & Dye, M. (2010). Children, wired - for better and for worse. Neuron. 67, 692-701, Volume 67, Issue 5, 692-701, 9 September 2010 Copyright � 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.08.035

Acronym Required writes frequently on the diffusion and distortion of science in politics. We've written about individuals mixing religion with science, art with science, for instance here

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