Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Susan Greenfield's House of Epical Nonsense

Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield is the Director of the Royal Institution and is well known for her books and TV series about neuroscience. And yet, despite such impeccable bona fides, she's all too willing to talk a rare species of balls.

Greenfield’s area of expertise is synaptic pharmacology, and on that subject at least, she knows whereof she speaks. You can be sure that it's a field advanced by carefully controlled and refereed studies. Yet from time to time, she abandons the scientific method, with its near-pathological tendency to hedge, and wades into the latest tabloid panic, telling editors everything they want to hear: "Top Scientist Says Stroking Puppies Causes Autism".

The Spectre of Social Networking, Yesterday

She first came to my attention when she embarked upon a crazed Jeremiad against the legalisation of cannabis. At this point, I should say I’m making no claim one way or another about legalisation. I think her Guardian essay would have been just as damaging if it had been in favour, since it is comprehensively riddled with non-sequiters and tortuous semi-logic. Her thesis consists largely in trying to convince us that alcohol is not all bad, certainly not when compared to the evils of cannabis. What, for instance, are we to make of the following blithe assertion:
"Alcohol has a range of non-specific actions that affect the tiny electrical signals between one brain cell and another; cannabis has its own specialised chemical targets, so far less has a more potent effect."
That’s not science or argument as I know it, that's an all-but-meaningless assertion. But Greenfield has barely begun. Watch as a veritable county fair of aunt sallies are set up only to be expertly — if not stylishly — demolished:
"If cannabis were 'just the same' as alcohol and cigarettes, why are people not taking those already legal drugs for the much-lauded pain-relief effects?"
Who's saying they were 'just the same'? Isn’t part of the point that cannabis is thought to be less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes? And hold the phone: people don’t drink for alcohol’s pain-killing effects? The best that can be said about that is that the burden of proof rests squarely with Greenfield. Then there’s this syntactical train-wreck:
"Even the most loony of liberals has not suggested tolerance for morphine or heroin abuse, because they are prescribed clinically as potent painkillers. And think about it: if cannabis brings effective relief from pain, then how does it do so? Clearly by a large-scale action on the central nervous system."
That sentence has to be read twice to be understand, even though reading it once was painful enough. Greenfield clumsily tries to close off the argument’s closed off by using the word ‘abuse’, since plenty of people, and not just the ‘most loony of liberals’, would tolerate regulated morphine or heroin ‘use’ if it meant that crime fell. That second clause is also ambiguous. I assume she’s saying that no-one’s making the analgesic argument. But she could just as well be saying that no-one’s suggesting tolerance precisely because those drugs are prescribed clinically. And then her second argument is far from the clincher she thinks it is, unless she believes that the threat of any ‘large-scale action on the nervous system’ is enough to terrify us into abstinence; and if that’s the case, then she ought to be arguing for the banning of horror films or roller-coasters, since adrenalin also causes a “large-scale action on the central nervous system”.

But those two sentences were models of limpid prose compared to this monstrosity:
"Further wishful thinking is that, because cannabis doesn't actually kill you, it is OK to send out less negative legal signals, even though the Home Secretary admits that the drug is dangerous. Leaving aside the issue that cannabis could indeed be lethal, in that the impaired driving it can trigger could well kill, there is more to life than death."
The retinal discomfort caused by those opening four words is only somewhat relieved by the comedy of the closing seven. But, to give the Baroness her due: there is, indeed, more to life than death.

Remember, this is the Director of the Royal Institution we’re talking about. She has no business sounding like a second-rate Littlejohn, throwing factoids at the well and hoping they cohere. Mud-flinging can, of course, be effective. But tyou should at least check for signs of internal contradiction. Despite her repeated insistence that the effects of cannabis are massive and powerful and long-lasting, she also finds herself saying:
"The effects on the brain in real life are most probably subtle and therefore hard to monitor."
Now she tells us. Now for all I know, any one of her arguments, such as they are, might be true. Perhaps all of them are. As I say, I’m not arguing the toss one way or the other. The problem here is simply being able to discern an argument. When the prose is this bad, you keep having to peer through the fug, hoping a train of thought might emerge. A style of writing this clunky and scattershot can't help but suggest a style of thinking in similar disarray.

Now, this first-class mind and science explicator non pareil (not to mention unelected legislator) has now turned the logical engine of her mind toward a new and more existential threat that’s reared its incorporeal head. Fortunately, the good professor is ready to smite this beast. Have at thee, Social Networking:
"[Experiences of social networking] are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity."
Well, in my most Pooterish moments, I could entirely agree with her. But I recognise I'm ignoring the evidence of controlled studies or the anecdotal evidence of those entirely well-adjusted minds of those friends who regularly blog, twitter, facebook (hey it’s verb) and the like, without seeming to lose their identity.

If Baroness Greenfield wants to make pronouncements outside her field, that’s up to her. But as director of one of the world’s greatest scientific institutions, she should, at the very least, be making it her mission to defend and explain the scientific method. And that means citing refereed evidence. And, in this case, the evidence seems somewhat more sceptical than her about the dangers of social networking. If the worst that can be said about a technology is that it might make you a bit more like Stephen Fry, I think we can relax. And let's not get our science from self-appointed panjandrums with axes to grind.

Ben Goldacre on Greenfield

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