Prof who keeps announcing links between the Internet, childhood dementia and autism should publish theories in a scientific journal

Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of pharmacology at Oxford, made headlines this week by claiming that video games gave children dementia. She later partially retracted the statement, but it's the latest in a series of unsubstantiated claims about the effect of the Internet on children, including a claim linking autism to computers. She has compared her critics, including Ben Goldacre, to the epidemiologists who denied that smoking caused cancer.

Ben Goldacre has responded at length with a positive solution to the dispute. If Professor Greenfield has theories about the harms to children from the Internet and computers, she could publish them in a scientific journal.

And it is this second stage of review by your peers – after publication – that is so important in science. If there are flaws in your case, responses can be written, as letters, or even whole new papers. If there is merit in your work, then new ideas and research will be triggered. That is the real process of science.

If a scientist sidesteps their scientific peers, and chooses to take an apparently changeable, frightening, and technical scientific case directly to the public, then that is a deliberate decision, and one that can’t realistically go unnoticed. The lay public might find your case superficially appealing, but they may not be fully able to judge the merits of all your technical evidence.

I think these serious scientific concerns belong, at least once, in a clear scientific paper. I don’t see how this suggestion is inappropriate, or impudent, and in all seriousness, I can’t see an argument against it. I hope it won’t elicit an accusation of sexism, or of participation in a cover-up. I hope that it will simply result in an Oxford science professor writing a scientific paper, about a scientific claim of great public health importance, that they have made repeatedly – but confusingly – for at least half a decade.

Why won’t Professor Greenfield publish this theory in a scientific journal?


  1. “Prof who keeps announcing the Internet to childhood dementia and autism should publish theories in a scientific journal”

    Is that headline quite right? I’m having a hard time parsing it. :)
    “who keeps linking” maybe?

  2. Is it my own dementia, or does that headline make no sense?  What does it mean, “announcing Internet to childhood dementia and autism”?

    edit: I see the headline has been corrected. Much better. Although I do still wonder why it subtly insinuates a possible link between childhood dementia and autism.

  3. I think it’s pretty clear. She goes around to the houses of children with autism or dementia and announces the existence of the internet. Confusion all round. Something must be done.

  4. Adding “Links Between the” between “Announcing” and “Childhood” links the 2 parts of the sentence in a way that causes much less dementia.
    As to the point of the article… Hard to not agree 100% really. If she’s a qualified pharmacologist, she can’t be naive about this. So basically, there must be an agenda. Oh, wait….

  5. it seems very probable given amount of followers Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Kim Kardashian have on twitter

    1. It seems very probable, given amount of followers Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Kim Kardashian have on the existence of twitter.


  6. I am unfamiliar with childhood dementia on the whole, but presumably it is something you get when you have a genetic predisposition and are exposed to whatever triggers may help it manifest. She could very well make arguments for it based on this.  The fact that she is unwilling to do research or publish a scientific paper is really suspicious. I agree with the “agenda” perspective.

    I could maybe see some plausibility in her “childhood dementia” argument. However, the Autism argument is really baseless and ignorant.  If autism is usually diagnosed at around age 3, how does the internet (something you get exposure to later in life) cause it? This seems akin to Michele Bachman spouting off some nonsense about a 12 year old girl “getting” mental retardation from HPV vaccines. Severe ignorance about the disorder coupled with sensationalism surrounding misread research does not lead anyone to progress. Neither does spouting off baseless conjecture.

  7. It’s hard being out of the public eye for three minutes if you’re an egomaniac.  She’s making herself famous (a bit more) – doing this kind of stuff in the field of science is metaphorically identical to Paris Hilton’s bemusing publication of her private life.

    Scientists nowadays don’t have it so good as before – short of curing AIDS, you don’t really make the front cover.

    Baroness Susan Greenfield … a ripe target, if ever there was one.  Check out her wikipedia entry – she’s been so busy setting up this and directing that.  She can’t possibly have time to run those things and also actually be a scientist and also keep the public lens pointed at her … particularly as a Baron(ess) is “the lowest rank in the peerage” – how angry would you be?

    Wiki:  “she is best known as a populariser of science” – what’s that then?  Apple have done a fine job of that.

    She’s an electrician’s daughter – maybe he was mean to her, and she’s had a deep-seated abiding hate for all things non-Luddite.

    Her little awards section demonstrates she’s well ‘in with the gang’ – so will find a route to publicity no matter what.

    So we should pay her no heed, and move along.

    If you want to keep up to date with her, just read the (UK) Daily Mail.  She’ll be back.

    1. It may be my incipient dementia talking, but I think that every time somebody uses the word “sheeple,” a flower withers and dies.

        1. Oh, sorry.   (If only somebody could’ve warned me in advance that there were sarcastic people here! :p)

  8. If autism is usually diagnosed at around age 3, how does the internet (something you get exposure to later in life) cause it?

    It’s diagnosed around age 3, but there are warning signs visible in most babies that end up diagnosed as autistic as early as the first year of life. It’s just not conclusive because it can turn out to be a much milder developmental delay, or another developmental problem altogether. IE not good for testing because it’s not specific enough.

    It’s pretty clear that people with autism are autistic from a pre-linguistic stage. Which makes claims of post-natal environmental causes particularly frustrating – it panders to the very-natural parental need for an “excuse” – they didn’t “make” a weird baby and they certainly didn’t miss the signs of weirdness for years, someone stole their perfectly normal baby from them! :P

    Disclaimer: I’m autistic, and I use the internet. Oh NOES!

    1. There was a similar “study” done by a non-scientist at Cornell who stated it was too much early TV watching that caused autism.  As a parent raising a kid with autism, I found it pretty insulting that we as parents were the one’s exposing the kids, just seemed like it was the “refrigerator mother” theory rearing it’s ugly head.   I was and am open to the possibility that environmental toxins might have a role, as well as the possibility it could be entirely genetic.  Rather than fixing blame, it was largely, “my kid seems to be having a hard time with a lot of things that other kids find easy, and if we knew the mechanism, there might be a way to make the kid’s life easier.”  My daughter uses the internet too, largely youtube to sing and dance to videos, but hope she gets to use it more and more. 

  9. I can’t be bothered to look up this seemingly silly claims. Anyone know “what” exactly about the internet is supposed to cause autism and dementia in children? This researcher sounds more like a crazy person who goes into psychology to work out their own problems and is now projecting those problems onto society.

    My kids might watch a Scooby-Doo cartoon on the computer or I’ll show them a funny cat video, but their not checking email, reading news, looking for jobs, reading blogs, updating social media sites, parsing spreadsheets, etc. They use the computer less than kids in the 50’s and 60’s watched TV. Computers are tools. It’s like saying a screwdriver causes dementia.

  10. It’s a lot harder to be an attention whore if you have to first publish your ‘findings’ in a journal.

  11. As long as the media is continually desperate for something new to attract eyeballs, there will be a soapbox for attention whores. Wakefield started making his claims in 1998, and his results weren’t found unreproducible until four years later. I don’t think anyone even called his work “an elaborate fraud” until 2010. The damage done was already substantial. I’m all for freedom of the press, but where’s the accountability for the fraudsters and those giving them a voice?

  12. ” I hope it won’t elicit an accusation of sexism”

    I have to be honest here, I agree with him completely insofar as every salient bit of his point but I do think that this bit *was* and unnecessary dog-whistle. What I mean is that calling for a quack to support their wild claims, or for a scientific community at a highly respected institution to pressure their employees to show some modicum of professionalism is perfectly acceptable and right. But like the “race card” argument, preemptive claims of “hope they don’t think it’s sexist to expect a woman to act like a professional scientist” is really just playing into the hands, unwittingly or not, of people who like to use these kinds of arguments to discredit the work of legitimate female scientists while blaming the women who work for the advancement of other women.

    It’s not cool.

    1. Maybe you didn’t read the article.  She actually did accuse others of sexism when they asked her to support her claims. That is what the writer is referring to.

  13. I think that there could be a link between autism and internet usage. However, it’s a confusion of cause and effect. People on the autistic spectrum often find it easier to express themselves online, where no verbal nuances or body language are involved in communication. There’s also the obvious observation that a technically-minded autistic individual would prefer the computer to playing outside or other “neurotypical” behaviors that don’t provide as much cognitive stimuli.

  14. I’m not agreeing with the quack, but Ben’s proposed ‘solution’ isn’t fair at all. Journals don’t take all offered articles, esp. if it’s on something controversial.

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