Baroness Greenfield links Internet and autism, Internet has hearty laugh

Baroness Susan Greenfield is an Oxford neuroscientist known for dire, evidence-free predictions about how the Internet and video games are probably going to turn us all into mentally deficient social cripples any minute now. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she gets made fun of on the Internet a lot. (You may remember her from such memes as "the breezy people who go 'Yaka-wow!'")

Now, the Baroness can count yet another meme to her name. In a recent New Scientist interview, Greenfield claimed that there was a connection between the increase in autism diagnoses over the last 30 years, and the rise of the Internet as a common feature of modern life. Defending herself in a later interview with The Guardian, she said, "I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That's all."

You can see where this is going. Carl Zimmer has collected a number of lovely responses on his blog. (You can also follow that link for a brief explanation of why Greenfield's association is ridiculous, in case you are tempted to suspect otherwise.)

I, myself, point to an increase in autism, and an increase in my own age. That's all. The older I get, the more autism diagnoses there are. Coincidence? I think not, friends. The only solution is to find some way to keep me from aging another day. Get on it, scientists. Think of the children.


  1. Where’s the hole where people like Greenfield are bred? Is there an anti-dote? Who *are* these people, really? And who calls them scientists? I’d rather call them crazies… oh, wait, that’s already in use. Well, another kind of crazies then.

  2. After seeing how autism folks, God bless ’em, have sometimes reacted to bad science, I wouldn’t publicize to  loudly the supposed link between your increasing age and increased cases.  If you’re not careful, Jenny McCarthy might send a band of folks to your door to make sure you don’t have any more birthdays.

  3. You know, I did wonder why Baroness Greenfield disappeared without explanation after a massive two columns in the UK version of Wired.

    I point to her spouting nonsense, and I point to the termination of her contract. And I do it a bit late. That’s all.

  4. Does she do any actual science? I’m genuinely curious because I’m sure that the studies required to become a neuroscientist taught the scientific method.

  5. One way to take it is that the more Autism exists, the more the internet will be used and expand.  People, we need more autistic people out there to keep my interwebs fun and fresh!

  6. I’m sorry, Maggie, the conclusion is unavoidable.  To stop autism, you must be killed.

    We will not soon forget your noble sacrifice.

    1. No, no. That won’t work, either. I’ve just discovered a link between threats on my life and a decline in the stock market. Imagine what will happen if you kill me!

      The only solution is to make me immortal. 

  7. Ah, but there is at least one way to make a connection between TECH and autism:  The rise of high paying tech jobs has given many people who have high functioning autism or some genetic predisposition for autism good jobs.  This has helped enlarge the idea of what a successful mate looks like:  Smart and geeky is now desirable.  This allows more people with autism in their genes  to produce children and to have access to good doctors who diagnose autism in said children.

    Evolution is all that is.  People with a certain kind of brain are more fit to thrive in the environment we’ve created, but some of the offspring of those people are too far along the autism trail to quite fit in easily.  At least right now . . .

    1. Flawed premise.  In the old country in several societies, marriage was often by parental decree, with no reason to suspect that geeks would not be chosen for marriage.  Also plenty of old school professions involved technical interests and skills: Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, beekeeper, jeweller, tinsmith, blacksmith, soapmaker, fletcher, tailor, accountants, librarians, actuarists have been around for centuries.   Engineers, naturalists and scientists have been relatively common for at least a century.

  8. Seriously, Maggie, I’d be very interested in a science-y or statisticky explanation of how to tell when a “young” disease or diagnosis is increasing because more people are really getting it, versus an increase in doctors learning to how diagnose it. For example, the virus and problem of HIV/AIDS existed prior to doctors reaching a consensus on the cause of it and what to call it. A person could give a misleading statistic about a dramatic increase in diagnoses of AIDS in the early 80s that was more about the dramatic increase in knowledge about that disease, not necessarily an increase in the actual incidence of disease.

    I’m not trying to advance a conspiracy theory that increase in AIDS diagnoses in the 80s was all or mostly explained by doctors learning to diagnose it. I’d like to have a better understanding of how doctors or scientists or statisticians are able to filter that out when discussing relatively new diseases.

    If more information about autism became available to doctors via the internet, then more doctors could feel confident to diagnose that set of symptoms as Autism, even if the number of people with those symptoms remained about the same. (The problem with this theory is that Autism as a diagnosis is not as “young” as I thought it was, and definitely predates the 90s explosion of the internet.)

    Not to defend Greenfield! Her quote is a perfect example of assuming correlation = causation.

  9. Can we please stop calling these people scientists? I think the title Neuroalchemist makes much more sense for Greenfield, except for the part where is sounds awesome.  

    1. Hey, don’t bring down the good name of alchemists by associating them with the Baroness. She should stick with COBRA.

  10. I’d like to quickly explore the logic of the “connection” the Baroness makes, as there are several possibilities of an explanation of causation of autism from the internet:

    1. Using the internet creates isolation in the user which can lead to anti-social autism symptom-esque behavior (if you don’t think too hard about it). However, as autism is typically diagnosed in toddlers, this would imply that infants spend too much time online.

    2. Due to the ease of information dissemination, the internet has increased awareness of autism and therefore increased the diagnosis rate.

    3. Using the internet has caused genetic mutations in adults that have led to an increase in the prevalence of autism.

    Not very good arguments overall. Conclusion: Fail.

    1. if autism is hereditary then maybe the internets have provided a mechanism that allows spectrum adults to hook up and make spectrum babbies

  11. Looks like Bill O’Reilly has some competition for viral use of logical fallacies.

    Baroness Greenfield learns the scientific method.
    Baroness Greenfield doesn’t apply the scientific method.
    Can’t explain that.

  12. I point to the increase in fearmongering and I point to internet use. That’s all.

  13. I point to titles like “Baroness” and I point to incompetents in positions of authority. That’s all.

    1. Actually, she was created a life peer; she didn’t inherit her title and it dies with her. HMG actually saw fit to reward her with a barony.

  14. As long as science fails to explain the dramatic increase in autism, you’re going to have all sorts of people coming up with theories to fill that vacuum.  Science is moving too slowly on this.

    1. I would not say that science is moving too slowly myself. From what I
      read, most of the “dramatic increase” is from better diagnostics which
      helps catch more edge cases. Oxford neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop even states that in her response.

      From the original story:

      “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

      1. Your readings are limited, as there’s certainly no consensus in the field.  From what I’ve read over the past 9 years, and based on a decade of parenting a kid with autism, yeah, it’s moving too slow.  If there’s always been this huge chunk of the population with disabling communication/socializations issues and odd sensitivities, and it’s only recently come to light as some like yourself have fancifully suggested, then it’s been moving too slow for centuries.

        1. I said nothing about it “recently coming to light”.  and I know that I have more to read, nobody ever, has read enough on any subject.

          I am also not arguing that there has not always been a large chuck of the population with problems. I am sure, even though I have not been tested, that I am one of those (even as an edge case). And I have children who are also (and they have been tested).

          I do not blame science for the slowdown, I blame how people label and treat each other for the slow down. People are too likely to just drop a label on someone and then walk away assuming that they now know how to deal with them. Considering the spectrum that Autism can cover, one label is a bad thing.

          1. You mentioned the “dramatic increase”, which most describe as being the increase seen since the 80’s.  So if you’re talking about the increase as being a diagnostic change, then you’re part of those making the case that there’s always been a huge population of people with autism or similar condition, however or whether or not anyone labelled it, and no noticed the discrepancy until the 1990’s. 

            I don’t “blame the science” for not moving faster.  Science works on money, and the field was neglected for decades as it was a diagnosis that was supposed to only apply to one out of 500,000 individuals. 

            Bottom line for me, is there’s not a med or device out there that makes my kid less likely to be killed crossing the street.  Currently she gets too distracted and could easily wander into harm’s way. And she wants to talk and connect with other kids, but has great difficulty doing so.  I would like her to have an easier and safer way in the world, so I have little patience for anyone who thinks the science is moving fast enough.  Worrying about labels or diagnoses is certainly not important. 

            I take issue with your viewpoint also because well meaning, likely relatively scientific people like yourself believe that the science is settled on their not being a true increase in autism/asd.  And if there were a slow subtle increase, from an environmental neurotoxin or other unknown agent, we could be missing both a deadly serious health crisis as well as missing a way of preventing others from having a difficult life, and maybe helping the lives of those already affected.

        2. I concur wholeheartedly.  2 out 4 members of my wedding party have kids on the spectrum, those are some pretty crazy stats.  We have talked about why this might be, did we socially aggregate bc we share similar social interests (punk rock, crappy parents, ethnicity?) and we always come up with nothing.

  15. “mentally deficient social cripples”
    Maggie, I pray as only an atheist can, that you are being facetious.  I believe you don’t mean this but it still made me sad.  My son is on the spectrum and we are very sensitive to comments like this however in jest (you know how literal ASD peeps can be).

    When informed he was on the spectrum he cried that he did not want be autistic because it was bad.  I told him that all that meant (though I know it means much more and so does he), that those things that are extremely difficult for the vast majority of people are very easy for him.  And that which is extremely difficult for him is first nature for most people.  The key is to figure out how to capitalize on that which others cannot do that he can, and practice what he can’t do until he kinda can.

    Of course, I informed him that taking money from little kids to beat the boss and level up for them on a variety of Mario Bros, Pokemon, Star Wars both Lego and Battlefront do not count as a marketable skill set.

    1. Bklynchris, 

      I really apologize. Now that I re-read that, it sounds like a dig against autistic people. It was very much not meant that way. This is the first time I’ve heard Greenfield specifically discuss autism. In the past, I’ve heard her talk about the damaging effects of Internet and video game use in terms of more generic intellectual and social impairment. That’s what I was referencing here. Not autism. 

      Again, big apologies from me for any offense or hurt. 


      1. FWIW, I read it and just accepted it. When I think about it, I realize “mentally deficient social cripple” is really offensive. But before I learned to cope with it, I spent so much of my life being ridiculed for my HFA and the awkward, humiliating and occasionally dangerous situations it’s put me in that that sort of wording barely even registers for me. I’ve accepted how I am and learned to cope with it without being ashamed, but the fact that that is how most of the world sees those with autism is ingrained in my subconscious. Among the half or so of people who seem to actually believe in neurochemistry – and therefore accept that a person can have a mental disorder and not be some kind of criminal – many act as if we are just irritating obstacles put on the Earth to frustrate them. And of the fraction that both understand that mental “illness” can be a birth “defect” and don’t resent the existence of those so born, the most common reaction, in my experience, is pity, which is almost worse than being denigrated. The point is, I know enough about you from your work here, Maggie, to feel confident that you neither dismiss nor disparage nor pity those of us who’s brains are a little different from the so-called norm. That said, I appreciate your clarification all the same.

        1. Whenever psych professionals comment on my son’s lack of eye contact (which is no issue for people he has developed trust with) I always point out that sociopaths give fantastic eye contact.

          1. I always point out that sociopaths give fantastic eye contact.

            Thanks ever so for vividly reminding me of my last relationship.

          2. There is this perception prevalent in society that mental abnormalities are somehow the fault of their owner, yet physical abnormalities are afflicted on the owner. Maybe it’s because the brain is harder to understand or maybe it’s because it’s less visible (though no one seems to think someone with a heart condition is deviant). I don’t ask people to make special allowances for me and I don’t ask people to feel sorry for me. Everyone plays the cards they’re dealt. I figure I can look on my differences as an obstacle or a challenge to grow. I choose the latter. But when half the population seems to dismiss the possibility that the brain’s functions are physiologically rooted and their “malfunctions” can also be physiological, you learn the unhealthy habit of not arguing the point, particularly when the very difference you must deal with makes taking on half the world a terrifying prospect. I do believe this attitude is shifting, but it can’t come fast enough.

            The reason I know Maggie would never be so callous towards ASD folks is because she has always been a stark supporter of honest science – even when, by not resorting to easier to understand but flawed arguments, it makes convincing the masses a little harder in the short run. It’s the self-aggrandizing, fear-mongering, bad-science-doing, authority-abusing narcissists such as Greenfield that perpetuate the view that autism = what the cripple fairy will turn you into if you don’t turn off that internet connection.

      2. I know you didn’t mean it, and I am pretty sure that is what Greenfield was kinda saying.  No harm no foul.  I am just sensitive that this is what is the prevalent sentiment about ASD folk and no BBer probably believes such.  I just wince when I hear those things.

        Keep up the amazing posts!  And don’t let the Minnesota summer kill you…winter is coming : )

  16. Scientists say things that are correct, scientists say things that are stupid. You can’t explain that.
    Wait, wrong meme.

    Will we ever get over the “experts say” phase of reporting?

    1. “Will we ever get over the “experts say” phase of reporting? ”
      No.  It will almost always be easier to say “experts say” vs. finding citations.

  17. Aha, I have a hypothesis.

    People whose names end in “Field” don’t know squat about autism.
    Fix: They should be banned from labs and the net.

  18. I point to the dramatic spread of autism and I point to the dramatic increase in advertising on boingboing. That is all. Please move right along, nothing to see here.

  19. I’m a fan of publishing correct scientific data, and lay-explainers of complex scientific phenomenon. But I have to ask, what value does the community gain from a snarking cheer-led takedown? Why invite such a politicized three-ring circus over it? What matters more, the scientific data or the politics?

    We have to ask ourselves as non-scientist should we even allow ourselves the snark? It’s one thing for another scientist to break it down in those terms. But amping it up for mass consumption doesn’t seem like the best way to introduce people to the story. I for one have never heard of this person, and frankly I don’t care. 

    Many of the comments here are repetions of the original snark; once an authority figure says it’s ok to pile on, everyone piles on. The nearest meatspace equivilent to this sort of takedown is a sort of jeering, egging crowd, “off with ‘er ‘ead!”.  In the end, this invites the darker side of humanity out in a communion. As if it’s ok to hate (or spite) someone in public just as long as another authority figure casts the first egg. Either way, there is no need to westboro her just for the spite. 

    It’s like the internet, and its lack of accountability, society, and custom turns everyone into freewheeling grade-schoolers at recess,

    “Teacher, she’s talking non-sense!” —
    “Then just leave her alone, and don’t pay any attention to her. Is anyone else listening to her?” —
    “No.” —   
    “Well ok then, why are you?”    

    1. But I have to ask, what value does the community gain from a snarking cheer-led takedown?

      What part of her being in a position of power and authority are you unclear on? Her idiocies are quoted in the international news and taken as scientific fact by people who assume that she’s correct because she’s Baroness von Official Scientist.

      1. What part of her being in a position of power and authority are you unclear on? Her idiocies are quoted in the international news and taken as scientific fact by people who assume that she’s correct because she’s Baroness von Official Scientist.

        Is she really that powerful? Or are you just granting her more legitimacy then she is due? Do you have any data to back up your point? Who is taking her words as fact, and what publications are those facts incorrectly published in? If you do have that data — would it not be more valuable to publicly post that up rather then just a snark filled rant?
        The public part is important. If this went on in private, as we all know it does, out of the public eye then who should care how snarky it is. It would be a private conversation, but things change if it’s done in public.

        What it comes down to is this, the snarker is asking us, the audience, to take her at her word. But isn’t that the very thing that she, and you tacitly, are railing aginst in the first place? She doesn’t want the audience to take the Baroness at her word. But what of your audience who might not know a thing about her? To those who don’t have any relevant data sets in mind it just looks like an old school, very public, politically charge mud sling.

        On top of that you seem to imply that the rest of the people who might see her claims aren’t smart enough to remain skeptical of those claims. Is everyone else who might read the Baroness also too dumb to know the difference? Again where is your data to back this claim? Surely if she has had such a powerful and deleterious effect on the public you can prove so with data or an article or two.  

        Data is good, emotions are just, well, emotions, and they really don’t help the audience understand why she is such a terrible scientist, data does that. Snarking is just bad for everyone invloved as it does nothing to disprove the original claim or advance the cause claimed by the snark.    

        I’m appealing to decency, and frankly it’s ironic that a moderator called me on it.

        EDIT: as additional evidence of my claim that snarking leads to no good outcomes, I would point you to the apology since posted in this thread. A sort of very unfortunate “collateral damage.”

        1. Is everyone else who might read the Baroness also too dumb to know the difference?

          The average IQ is 100. That means (more or less) that half the population is under that. They’re allowed to vote, just like the half that’s over 100.

          1. The average IQ is 100. That means (more or less) that half the population is under that. They’re allowed to vote, just like the half that’s over 100.

            How is this even relevant? Especially, in light of this recent BoingBoing article?  

            From Cory Doctorow:

            But surely’s the most damning element of this “study” is that it used IQ as a meaningful proxy for “intelligence.” If someone came up with a study that correlated star-signs, biorhythms, Meyers-Briggs types, or auras with browser choice, and then it was revealed that the data was fudged, would the fudging really be the most damning fact about the study’s validity?

          2. I’m assuming that you’re wired with a bomb that’s set to explode if you lose an argument, because I can’t think of any other explanation for your comments.

          3. Cut me some slack, would you? It’s not clear what exactly you are arguing in support for. As a moderator you must be concerned with possible vitriol, which isn’t that far removed from snark, which was the content of the original blog post. 

            That concern you have as a moderator is also what motivated my original argument in this thread. I was only appealing to human decency. Which is sort of what your offical job title is here. Even as loose as the regulations are, the community is still interested in maintaining decorum.

            So that’s why I found it peculiar that you would speak out in support of a mode of expression that you might otherwise attempt to regulate had it come from one of the peons in the peanut gallery.    

          4. We have no rule against snark. You described the post/thread as “freewheeling grade-schoolers at recess.” I pointed out that there’s a reason why it’s an important topic. You seem to feel that you get to lob (unintentionally ironic) insults but that everyone else has to address you in hushed tones.

          5. I am no different than anybody else. If someone was offended then they can say so. Are you offended by my choice of metaphor? Do I need to apologize to you? Maybe the metaphor wasn’t the best choice for the thread, but you are the first to say so.   

            I am just pointing out that snark does not support your contention that this is an “important topic.” If you do indeed think this is an important topic then I should wonder why all the jokes in this thread? If this is an important topic shouldn’t it be treated as such. Most of my earlier posts were attempts to explain my thoughts that this isn’t the way to treat an “important” topic.

            Are you simply not listening to me in an attempt to gain justification for action aginst me?  Are you the one that’s wired to explode? I think you just don’t like me since I am a bit of an “outsider” by reputation. I hope to god that I am drawing the wrong conclusion, but its hard for me to tell sometimes. I am also weary of gumming up the public forum.

            If you want to continue discussion related to this topic we best do it via e-mail or some other out of forum chat. Let me know.

  20. Maggie, are you saying that you’re causing autism? If that’s true, you need to be stopped IMMEDIATELY. What an awful career path to choose!

    (Spoiler: ;) )

  21. I don’t know why folks are so worried about autism, anyway. Didn’t Jenny McCarthy single-handedly cure it?

  22. Wow. I’m pretty sure this does not qualify under the scientific definition of “environmental conditions” in the autism likelihood equation of genetic predisposition + environmental conditions = potential ASD. (“Does not qualify” read as: “is completely out of left field”)

    Otherwise: I feel like this thread needs a mention that the increase of autism is not only about the increased diagnoses thanks to doctors learning how to diagnose it earlier and faster, but also the development of the autism spectrum, allowing for a wider breadth of diagnoses including many more people. (I am obviously truncating the history here, but y’all get the idea.)

  23. Anyone know how she prefers to be addressed?  Baroness Greenfield, PhD? Dr. Baroness Greenfield? Oh I know!  Dr. Baroness Greenfield, PhD!

  24. Next she will be saying that only “her” internet does not cause autism and we all need to pay her to use it. 

  25. I point to pirates and I point to Pilates. I point to Socrates and I point to Orange Krates. I point to bananas and I point to bandanas. I point a lot, not always with my hands if you know what I mean and helloooo, nurse!

  26. Ah, thank you for the correction. My knee-jerk reaction against titles was as well considered as you would expect.

  27. Maggie, if you mustn’t get any older *and* mustn’t die, then I’m afraid it’s the Carbonite for you. Stasis is the answer here.

    As for Greenfield, take a look at wikipedia (,_Baroness_Greenfield) she has some serious research achievements in her past as well as some fairly impressive awards. None of which has ever stood in the way of someone making strange pronouncements on occasion. I mean, a member of BB is known for some serious literary output and yet has also made utterly ludicrous pronouncements about certain technology companies.

  28. Diagnostics criteria changed in the 90’s, with whole categories of functional autistics being created (high functioning autistic and Asperger’s) which rather changed a lot. Before that a person needed to be pretty much socially non-functional, and likely needing care their whole life. Suddenly intelligent people who function perfectly well on their own but are somewhat limited in a rather small range of social functions get included in the diagnosis. Result? Incredible explosion in diagnosis. Not really surprising. This increase keeps going while practitioners get to grips with the new diagnostic criteria and gain experience.

    That said, there will likely be a further increase in diagnosis as it is generally accepted that the diagnostic criteria does not catch milder autism (HFA and Asperger’s) in girls nearly as well, likely due to girls different forms of social interaction, and the diagnostic criteria has not been fully accepted for diagnosing adults (people born before 1980-1985 or from small towns with only small psychologist infestations won’t have been diagnosed as children). So, quite a bit more to do.Then the question arises, is autism any kind of disease/condition, or merely a categorisation of certain neural setups? Might we see more nuanced categorisation in the future which better looks at strengths and weaknesses? We already know that people with HFA and Asperger’s can be quite successful. The likelihood of success seems to be a good thing for finding a partner… and I don’t see many aspies sitting alone and unloved.
    So, to play the meme game: “I point to the increase in autism and I point to changes in diagnostic criteria. That’s all.”

  29. I point to Post Hoc, and I point to Propter Hoc.  But that’s not all, folks – I also point to Pre Hoc, and I point to Propter Hoc!

Comments are closed.