Susan Greenfield: I h8 u

My love-affair with the Baroness Greenfield started and ended when a colleague, on hearing about some of my interests (in this case, neuroscience, and science fiction), presented me with a copy of Tomorrow’s People: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, assuring me that it was fantastic, and that I would absolutely love it. The blurb certainly made it sound exciting – a critical look at how existing technology and future technology may shape the way we think sounded pretty interesting, and like something I would enjoy reading. Sadly, any sense of enjoyment that I felt had largely seeped out of me by the time I reached the end of the first chapter. I slogged on through the book, determined to finish (and to see if it improved), but barely struggled to the end. The book itself is not one that I can recommend. Far from being the eye-opening, explosive treatment that the cover promised, I found it to be a sub-par, overly-general, ham-fisted description that barely nicked the surface of future technology, that seemed hesitant to actually discuss effects on the brain, and that seemed more like a school report written by a teenager who had just read their first sci-fi book, and was completely new to many of the concepts. In short, it was patronising, uninformed, and rather dull.

Well, writing a bad book isn’t a crime – there are plenty of stinkers out there – and nor is it reason enough to hate someone. What makes me bristle whenever I hear the name Greenfield in a news report or an article is the unsupported, scare-tactic declarations that will inevitably follow, all stated by someone who is a qualified scientist and who, at least allegedly, wishes to promote science to the world. At first, I put it down to a strong difference of opinion. As a child/young adult of the 21st century, I have wholeheartedly embraced technology, and all that it can do for me, whereas Greenfield appears to be somewhat neophobic, or at the very least, technophobic. Now, though, I’ve come to realise that it’s more than just that.

What really bugs me is that, in so many ways, she’s similar to the kind of quacks I often blog about – she claims that modern technology is ruining the brains of our children (won’t someone please think of the children), and yet endorses and sells a “brain-training” computer game, despite mounting evidence that these games have no demonstrable effect on brain “age”, memory, or “fitness”; she makes sweeping claims about the effects of social networks, without evidence to back up what she’s saying; despite being asked repeatedly, she has yet to formalise any of her assertions in a paper (which could be examined, peer-reviewed, etc.); she claims to promote science, yet mostly seems to use her publicity to promote herself, and her unproven, unsubstantiated theories about modern tech and social networking – but unlike most of the quacks, she’s actually a scientist!

It seems that not a week goes by without an article or news report telling us how social networking sites are ruining our lives, melting our brains, or stripping us of our social skills. Whenever this comes up, we usually here about the same few cases repeatedly (the online bullying suicides, the facebook divorces, the twitterati spats), and are then told that if we continue to use these sites, we will become mindless drones, unable to pay attention to anything, unable to communicate in real life, and incapable of having friendships that exist outside of Facebook. All of these assertions have two things in common; there is absolutely no evidence to support them, and Greenfield insists on repeating them at every given opportunity. Unlike most of the “social media experts” or quacks who may prattle on about magical HIV curing boxes, or soundwave mp3s that cure cancer, Greenfield is someone who should know better. She is someone who certainly has the resources and the pull to conduct a proper study to establish the truth about brain change due to social networking, but for some strange reason, she refuses to do so.

I don’t personally believe that the advent of social networking will lead to the decline of humanity. I think that that is an attitude held mostly by those with an incomplete understanding of the technology in question, and how people really use it. In every scenario, with every new “big thing”, there will be some who misuse it (by abusing it, using it to hurt others, or simply damaging themselves through overuse), but generally, these people are the outliers, the exception, rather than the rule. For each messy “Facebook divorce”, it’s easy to find literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people who use the site as intended – sharing photos, reconnecting with old school friends, and organising events, to name just a few functions. However, I’m a reasonable person and, above all, a scientist myself. If someone presents me with the studies, and they show that there really has been a change, for the worse, in our brains, then I will happily eat my words, and laud Greenfield as a visionary. However, in order for that to happen, she’d have to behave like a scientist (rather than a sensationalist) and actually do the research. As a scientist, she should be responsible enough to ensure that when she says that computers are damaging children’s brains or causing obesity, she possesses evidence to back it up. As a particularly PR-savvy scientist, she should be well aware of the fact that her name carries significant weight, meaning that people will believe what she says more readily. And finally, as a scientist, it’s her duty to back up her claims; to do the research, submit the paper, and allow it to be reviewed by her peers. Until then, it’s just empty words.

As a woman, a scientist, and someone working in an industry that is typically dominated by men (I.T.), I have a much more personal quibble with Greenfield. Recently, she was sacked from the Royal Institute. Although the exact reason is unclear, there has been much speculation about the reasons for her being sacked; among them, the massive debt in which the R.I. finds itself after a renovation spearheaded by Greenfield (although, in her defence, the trustees did also agree to go ahead with it). There are also rumours that the sacking may have been much more personal, and that there was a personality clash between Greenfield and other members at the R.I. The one thing that is certain, however, is that Greenfield is preparing to take the R.I. to an employment tribunal to allege, among other things, that sexual discrimination played a part in her sacking.

While it may be true that seeing a woman like Greenfield in a prominent position somewhere as respected as the R.I. may well have encouraged and inspired other young girls to pursue science, I believe it is also true that her tribunal will quash any such inspiration more effectively than any public sacking could have done. If there was an issue with her sacking, as there may well have been, then she has every right to take them to a tribunal, but why, oh why, must she play the gender discrimination card? Doing so sends so many messages, and they’re all bad. It tells people that, when firing a woman, you always risk a frivolous lawsuit. It reinforces the stereotypical notions that women are a bad hire because they will cause problems. And it helps to maintain the corrosive attitude that exists almost everywhere today – that women need special treatment to get along in the workplace. If there was a gender issue, then of course, she should address it, but I don’t believe that to be the case. Instead, I believe that she has seized upon the fact that it is a predominantly male workplace to class her sacking as a gender issue, and avoid the real problems. Frankly, I think it’s beneath her.

Baroness Greenfield, I (along with many others, I’m sure) invite you to write up your research into social networking, and present it to the scientific community at large, so that we may review it, and possibly benefit from the knowledge held within. And on a purely personal note, with regard to your recent termination, I recommend that you “take it like a man”.