In “Serious claims belong in a serious scientific paper” (The Guardian, October 23, 2011), Ben Goldacre argues, regarding the claim that computer games cause dementia in children, “If you have a serious new claim to make, it should go through scientific publication and peer review before you present it to the media”
This week Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford reportedly announced that computer games could cause dementia in children. This would be very concerning scientific information. But this comes from the opening of a new wing of an expensive boarding school, not an academic conference. Then a spokesperson told a gaming site that’s not what she means. Though they didn’t say what she does mean.
Which may be a little unfair. Everybody kvetches about what computer games, i-Pods, and i-Pads are supposed to be doing to kids. They used to say the same about TV. Greenfield doubtless felt this was expected of her at a school opening.
And, by the way, critics always had a much better rap against TV, for its sheer passivity, boost for airheads, and its accelerating aim downward.
Anyway, Goldacre does have some interesting things to say about peer review, urging Greenfield to publish her findings;
But the value of a scientific publication goes beyond this simple benefit, of all relevant information appearing, unambiguously, in one place. It’s also a way to communicate your ideas to your scientific peers, and invite them to express an informed view.
In this regard, I don’t mean peer review, the “least-worst” system settled on for deciding whether a paper is worth publishing, where other academics decide if it’s accurate, novel and so on. This is often represented as some kind of policing system for truth, but in reality, some dreadful nonsense gets published, and mercifully so: shaky material of some small value can be published into the buyer-beware professional literature of academic science; then the academic readers of this literature, who are trained to critically appraise a scientific case, can make their own judgment.
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.
So those peer-revieweds are just the bozos, and the real fight is between the champs, later? Okay …
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.
Some of us believe it’s too soon for meaningful papers on kids and new media. The choice today is not between schools that use new media to speed learning vs. the street level dreck and drivel the kid could find for himself. It’s between schools that teach how you would have got information in 1964 vs. the street, which teaches you how you get it in the real world today.
In these circumstances, it would be difficult to distinguish signal from noise. But good luck to those who try.
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose
One Reply to “Neuroscience: Computer games cause dementia in children?”
Here’s a computer game I created:
It will not cause dementia. On the contrary, it will hone your analytical thinking skills. But wait, there’s still more! It’s free!
I must admit, however, that I enjoy playing Black Ops and the like on my PS3 with a 65-inch plasma TV. It’s my therapy. I’m still just a playful kid in some ways. I enjoy being so, and hope never to lose that youthful instinct.
No one is perfect.