The rise of the Internet has brought with it a steady stream of articles warning us of how it's going to destroy us, stupefy us, or otherwise alter our brain for the worse. They are typically thin on evidence and thick with fallacies. They rely on what we want to believe to paper over their lack of a compelling argument. To see what's wrong with this type of neuro-scare, check out rebuttals from the psychologist Vaughan Bell
, such as this piece for Slate
and this one at CNN
One of the most maddening of these Cassandras is Baronness Susan Greenfield, an Oxford neuroscientist. For a few years now she has been warning that the Internet is rewiring our brain, whatever that means. She warns that Twitter is turning us into social cripples. When asked for evidence, she either points to papers that provide no support for her sweeping claims, or says that we shouldn't wait for evidence. Her claims positively hum with contradiction. In order to make new technologies seem truly sinister, she ends up getting nostalgic
about television. You know, the technology that was supposed to bring an end to civilization a few decades ago?
"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, compared to when you are going up to your room and watching it until two or three in the morning on your own."
Reporters keep interviewing Greenfield, and she seems to keep upping the ante. Now she's playing the autism card.
When asked by New Scientist
for evidence that digital technology is having an impact on our brains, she declared
, "There is an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders."
On Thursday, Oxford neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop responded to Greenfield with what she described as an open letter
You may not realise just how much illogical garbage and ill-formed speculation parents of children with these conditions are exposed to. Over the years, they"ve been told that their children"s problems are caused by their cold style of interaction, inoculations, dental amalgams, faulty diets, allergies, drinking in pregnancy - the list is endless. Now we can add to this list internet use. Except that here, at least, parents will be able to detect the flaw in the logic. A cause has to precede its effect. This test of causality fails in two regards. First, demographically - the rise in autism diagnoses occurred well before internet use became widespread. Second, in individuals: autism is typically evident by 2 years of age, long before children become avid users of Twitter or Facebook. You also seem unaware of the large literature discussing possible causes of the increase in autism diagnoses, most of which concludes that most, if not all, of the increase is down to changes in diagnostic criteria.
Yesterday, The Guardian
followed up with an interview with Greenfield, in which she defended herself against such attacks. Along the way, one of the things she said
finally rewired my brain into a seizure:
"I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That's all."
Which drove me to Twitter, to sum up the ridiculousness of such a statement in 140 characters or less: