Oxford Dons – Leave the internet alone!

So we all know the story about Baroness Susan Greenfield and the internet and how she thinks it might be causing autism (among other things)

where she famously said:
“It could be the case that this different environment is changing the brain in an unprecedented way. It’s such an important issue and I’m just putting it before people to discuss.”

well this was the justification of earlier statments…

she also said
“I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That’s all. Establishing a causal relationship is very hard but there are trends out there that we must think about.”

this reminds me a bit of that old Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch with Linda Richmond when she would get ‘verklempt’ and say talk amongst yourselves – “I’ll give you a topic, Autism and the internet, Discuss.” SNL being a comedy show, Linda would announce all sorts of strange seemingly causal relationships, such as – “Global CO2 levels have been rising since the year I was born, talk amongst youselves” but you know on SNL this would be satire. Baroness Greenfield has brough satire to life (Voltaire must be rolling quite happily in the grave).

First of all Beware! of false causal relationships. Causal relationships, or causality are cause-effect relationships. These are pretty clear for many things in life. Like ” If I don’t show up to work, I am going to get sacked.” (of course that might depend on your job) or maybe slightly more universal – “If I don’t pay my rent, I will get evicted” Cause: rent not paid Effect: kicked out of home. However things like “CO2 levels have increased in the atomsphere ever since I was born” aren’t really my fault – except in the loose sense that I grew up in the Western world during a period of high CO2 output.

In scientific enquiry you spend alot of time looking for causal relationships that describe the physical world, in fact this is the majority of what we do. If I mutate this amino acid on the protein what happens to its structure and function? If I cause something, what is it effect. If I heat up a new compound I have synthesized, what happens to its hydrogen bonding regime? But as you can see from the above examples – these are single point causes then measuring effects.

But what Baroness Greenfield says is:

I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use.

so simplistically you might say ohh increase in autism (effect) that must be a the internet (cause), and because Susan Greenfield is a Baroness and a academic scientist she must know what she is talking about. But life is more complex than that. So many people have covered this better than I. Just look at Martin Robbins about Greenfield (his last article is simply masterful) as is this. Professor Dorothy Bishop (also at Oxford) even wrote Susan Greenfield an open letter about this. Prof. Bishop is also at Oxford as am I so perhaps this blog post is mistitled – we aren’t all like that.

There may be a connection between brain development and the internet, who knows? But you have to test that one cause and effect at a time. Not make global overarching statements akin to “The American debt increases at the same time my [enter your favourite baseball/football team] keep losing. These things are NOT related.

Nor is the internet evil – which appears to be the underlying theme, with some…

OK so Susan Greenfield is Susan Greenfield.
but then I saw this clip with Richard Dawkins on Sunday

Here:

And well Richard Dawkins is Richard Dawkins and he likes to confuse science with religion (I have written about this here as a guest blog for Agora if you are interested) so this is kind of standard stuff from Dawkins BUT – listen carefully at about 5 minutes where he starts talking about the internet and all of the conspiracy theories on the internet – and how they are freely accessable.. eeks!

He says:
“Wikipedia world presents great opportunity and great danger.”

“Paranoid conspiracy theories circulate unchallenged…”

“Its one of the nasty lies (Jews being tipped off about 9/11) circulating as truth in the blog community of racists and religious fundamentalists. Now such people can find each other anywhere in the world instantly, whipping up scares and reinforcing their paranoias and delusions.”

Whoa, Richard. Some of these things might be true but the same thing can be said about books or what you hear at the drink fountain or down at the pub. How is this different from times of yore? I don’t think there was a dearth of paranoid conspiracy theories in the 70s, have you heard all of the theories about JFK being shot? Or Man not landing on the Moon being a government hoax? I still know people who believe this (who have obviously also not ever worked for the government) and I don’t think its down to the internet.

What Prof. Dawkins seems to forget is the Internet is also the very vehicle that allowed me to watch his video. The internet is also the thing that actually allows for public agreement and disagreement, and for him to send forth his own world view for that matter. And this happens fast. So NOW when Susan Greenfield says something dumb about autism and the internet, Dorothy Bishop can write a blog (which is widely read) explaining the problems with the Baroness’s statement and quickly. If anything the internet has IMPROVED these sort of interactions where before you might have to have a drink with Prof. Bishop to get her to explain what was wrong with the Greenfield theory, instead of being able to read it freely on the internet, no matter where you are!

Its not the internet that is corrupting us (if you think it is indeed is), the internet in our modern society is a fabulous thing. It is also a new strange thing where information fills us so fast we have to think of a different way to sort it perhaps, but people are people and internet or no, I am sure Profs. Dawkins and Greenfield could find the same problems in books or random conversations, only people like me might not get the chance to publically respond.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @girlinterruptin
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3 Responses to Oxford Dons – Leave the internet alone!

  1. “The increase in the number of murders in the United Kingdom over the past 50 years mirrors the increase in the number of eggs consumed.”

    Nicely articulated, Sylvia. A curious thing, media – it increased the flow of both correct and incorrect information. I suspect that similar reactions to Richard Dawkins’ occurred when, say, the printing press was invented, or the television.

  2. No no, it’s not the number of eggs – it’s the lack of fish oils …!

    * Sigh *

    It is amazing what legs the old scary-but-spurious Correlation Gambit has. I even had a letter published in the Grauniad a few years back about one particularly daft (fish oil) example.