Baroness Greenfield ludicrously links autism to the internet

Posted on 10/08/2011

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baroness susan greenfield

Prof Susan Greenfield. In Australia she's been Australian Society for Medical Research Medallist 2010 and Adelaide Thinker in Residence

In an article in the latest New Scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield (she’s a prominent English neuroscientist at Oxford University and former director of the UK Royal Institution) was answering a question on: What evidence is there that digital technology is having an impact on our brains?

There is lots of evidence, for example, the recent paper “Microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder” in the journal PLoS One. We know the human brain can change and the environment can change it.

There is an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders.

My immediate reaction was: What?!?!? How can a disorder that usually becomes apparent in pre-school children by caused by the internet? Plus the rise in autism predates widespread internet use.

From that one small quote I would have been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she’d been misrepresented. Suggesting internet use causes autism would be upsetting for parents of autistic kids, who are understandably sensitive due a history of feeling blamed by many other putative causes of autism in their kids. And it’s a bit demeaning for parents coping with autistic kids to equate a teenage internet user developing slightly impaired social skills, with a pervasive developmental disorder like autism.

In a follow-up piece in the Guardian Greenfield seems to start off okay, clarifying that she was talking about excessive internet use by teenagers causing autism-like behaviours.

But then she goes on to say provocatively:

“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. I have not said that internet use causes autism and I would apologise to any family who is upset by anything I have said.”

So she’s both making the link again and denying making the link. Huh?

A Google search turns up a similar version in the Daily Mail (from 2009 -she’s been a serial offender in making pronouncements about technology re-wiring the brain, without any scientific evidence, over in the English press):

‘Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,’ she added.

Greenfield’s claims have been vigorously denounced by a fellow Oxford university professor of neuropsychology, Dr Dorothy Bishop :

“Your speculations have wandered on to my turf and it’s starting to get irritating. You mention the rise in autism as evidence for your concerns about the impact of the internet on children’s brains… You may not realise just how much illogical garbage and ill-formed speculation parents of these children are exposed to. Over the years they’ve been told their children’s problems are caused by [a] cold style of interaction, inoculations, dental amalgams, faulty diets, allergies, drinking in pregnancy – the list is endless.”

“Most cases are diagnosed around the age of two, when not many children are using the internet. You don’t suddenly get autism in the middle of your childhood,” Bishop said. “And this rise has been documented over the past 20 years, long before Twitter and Facebook.” -Guardian

But others have defended her; the blogger Neuroskeptic, who claims to be a neuroscientist, defends her on these grounds:

But despite all this, Baroness Greenfield does make an important point.

At the moment I think we’re sleepwalking into these technologies and assuming that everything will shake down just fine

These are very wise words. As a society, we are in danger of “sleepwalking” into social and cultural changes which we may end up regretting. Profound changes in the way people live rarely happen overnight, and they are rarely presented to us as a choice that we can either accept or reject. Societies just change, over a span of decades, often without anyone noticing what is happening until the change has happened.

Which is all very well and good, but I still don’t think this justifies persistently linking internet use to autism. Firstly because, in the public sphere there’s already enough bad science swirling around the causes of autism, such as the fraudulent link to MMR vaccination. To have a high-profile neuroscientist like Baroness Greenfield make such public statements only increases public confusion and decreases trust in science. And secondly because it’s so blatantly wrong – I checked the Diagnostic Standards Manual-IV criteria for autism and look what it says:

Delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to age 3 years: (1) social interaction, (2) language as used in social communication, or (3) symbolic or imaginative play.

I think when a famous scientist knows every controversial pronouncement they make will get hyperbolic mass media coverage, then if they’re stepping into a field as controversial and emotive as autism, they shouldn’t indulge in groundless and implausible speculation [I'm tempted to say impossible speculation, since I have a lot of trouble imagining 2 year olds on Facebook]. And if they do so accidentally, then they should either clear it up when the media come calling, or provide some evidence to back their claims at the first available opportunity.


Update: Dr Dorothy Bishop’s full refutation is here on her blog. The comments section had a link to this amusing send-up of her claims by Martin Robbins, also once he’s calmed down he analyses it here. Carl Zimmer also created a silly meme #GreenfieldismI point to the increase in esophageal cancer and I point to The Brady Bunch. That’s all. or I point to the rise of Rebecca Black and the Greek sovereign debt crisis, that is all.

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