Thursday, February 26, 2009

There is a Greenfield far away (but not far enough for me)

I fully agree with Andrew Howes's blog about Susan Greenfield's claims that social network sites 'infantalise the mind'. As head of the Royal Institute she has a remit to promote the public understanding of science, this has, I think two strands. First there is the promotion of the findings of science, keeping the public up-to-date on recent research in physics, biology, medicine, etc. in an easily understandable way. Second, there is the promotion of the actual process by which science operates. This would include hypothesis testing, the nature of control conditions, the process of peer review and so on and so forth. Dull stuff, but important I think. It is in this second goal that I think Baroness Greenfield has committed the most egregious piece of malpractice (which is what I consider it to be). 

Her pronouncements about social networking were filled so many with 'mays' and 'mights' and 'possiblies' that you could equally well -- from what she said -- draw the opposite conclusion to the one she drew. But in my limited media experience I know that the media are deaf to such words. When a scientist say "X may cause Y", the newspapers hear X unequivocably and definitely causes Y because I AM A SCIENTIST AND I HOLD THE TRUTH IN MY HANDS. 

I also love her description of social network sites, she says:

"My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment"

I suppose 'bright lights' could possibly describe some Myspace pages, but "buzzing noises"? Has ANYONE EVER heard a buzzing noise on a social network site?

Anyhow, Baroness Greenfield should, as a result of the above, be sacked from her role as head of the Royal Institution for singularly failing to abide by scientific strictures. On the  basis of no eviedence whatsoever she has attempted to promote herself by that most base of tactics, creating a moral panic. Two recent such scientifically derived moral panics were created by Andrew Wakefield who claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and Arpad Pusztai who claimed that genetically modified potatoes could damage the digestive system of rats. Both were sanctioned but *at least* in both cases the claims were based on data (very weak in the case of Wakefield, in the case of Pusztai it seems that his sacking from the  Rowett Rearsearch institute in Aberdeen was due to his employers being leant on by the Biotech company Monsanto). 

A friend of mine who knew the great evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith recounted a story about JMS's experience with the media (this was in the 70s and pertained, IIRC, to Horizon). He told my friend that once, when asked a question about sexual selection, he did what scientists usually do, listed the twelve most relevant theories and then discussed each one with respect to the available data. When the relevant part of the programme was broadcast some time later JMS was seen to launch into his tortuous theoretical analysis only for his voice to fade out and the narrator's voice to speak over it saying (as JMS recounted the story) "The professor then went on to say that men like women with big tits, and women like men with lots of money."

Scientists must communicate with the media, we have a responsibility to do so, after all it is public money that funds us, and who else is better placed to do the job? We must make things understandable, yet we must recognise that they want a good story (particularly the tabloids). We must therefore be aware of the interpretations that they are likely to place on our words and guard against it. We must not be misled into saying something to them just because we believe it will make them happy. Most importantly we must place our long-term reputations above short term gain, and the reputation of all science above all. 

Greenfield is a very media savvy cookie (charging between 5 & 10K for a public speaking engagement according to her agent's website) and as such she will know the impact that her words would've had.  As it turns out, most comment on blogs and in the broadsheets seems to take the line that she is a bit of a jerk, a great way of publicising science then Susan. 

Ta for that.

1 comment:

  1. It would be bad enough if she were 'just' a scientist, but as you say, her remit is to promote science. And this is so far from any scientific thought you wonder what her motives are. Here's my take on it: